Trump tried to use William Barr's Mueller strategy with Ukraine and it blew up in his face

Trump tried to use William Barr's Mueller strategy with Ukraine and it blew up in his face
Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

An enduring question in the Ukraine scandal is why the White House fought for six weeks to illegally withhold the whistleblower's complaint from Congress only to release a "transcript" of the call publicly that confirmed the whistleblower's report shortly after word of what it contained was leaked to The Washington Post. Any honest reading of the document revealed Trump using weapons sales to pressure Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to open a contrived investigation into a goofy conspiracy theory about Ukraine meddling in the 2016 election. It was a damning record of a president* abusing the powers of his office, and yet the regime just gave it up.

I don't have any inside information, but my own theory is that their crisis management strategy was the result of Attorney General William Barr's success in minimizing the impact of the Mueller report by releasing a brief summary that substantially misled the public about the nature of Mueller's findings and elided the most disturbing results of the special counsel's probe.

To recap, Barr sent a memo to Congress on March 24 stating definitively that "the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities" and that on the matter of obstructing the investigation, it did "not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him." That led to headlines like "A Cloud Over Trump’s Presidency Is Lifted" (New York Times) and established Trump's "no collusion, no obstruction" narrative. Under pressure, Barr then released a redacted version of the report three weeks later which revealed that Mueller had found ten patterns of obstruction of justice which met the Department of Justice's criteria for bringing charges against anyone who isn't a sitting president. It was two weeks after that, on April 30, when we learned that Mueller had complained that Barr's memo failed to "fully capture" what his probe had found. By then, the public's perception of the Mueller probe was firmly established.

Just this week, we learned from FOIA'd notes from the probe that members of the Trump regime and the Republican National Committee had foreknowledge about the release of hacked DNC emails, which may make them an accessory after the fact to various crimes. That news hardly made a blip.

In hindsight, it was a masterful coverup. A Washington Post poll conducted in July found that support for impeachment had actually fallen following the release of the Mueller report, and that Americans were about evenly split on the question of whether Trump attempted to obstruct the investigation.

Those of us who saw a coverup in Barr's summary felt a sense of deja vu when the White House released a "reconstructed transcript" of Trump's call with Zelensky. Like Barr's concession that Trump might have obstructed justice, it contained an apparent quid pro quo. Based on the fact that it was around 11 minutes' worth of a  conversation that the White House said took 30 minutes to conduct, it was clearly not giving us the full picture. It contained ellipses surrounding Trump's discussion of Crowdstrike, the data security firm at the heart of a goofy right-wing conspiracy theory about a DNC server being secretly held by a nonexistent Ukrainian oligarch.

I believe that Trump and his advisors calculated that they by releasing the record of a somewhat ambiguous demand for an investigation into Hunter Biden in exchange for an arms purchase they could achieve the same effect, blunting reports of a sprawling, months-long effort to use military aid as a cudgel--and dangling the carrot of a face-to-face with Trump at the White House--to compel Zelensky to announce publicly that his government was investigating Hunter Biden.

It goes without saying that it did not work as intended, and there are probably a number of reasons why Barr's strategy couldn't be replicated for Ukraine by Trump. First, while it wasn't earned, Barr had more credibility at the time. Second, the Mueller investigation dragged out for months and we had already learned a lot about Kremlingate from investigative journalists and court filings previously. Ukraine was different. We knew nothing about it until we learned that there was a whistleblower implicating the White House in wrongdoing, and then the story spiraled quickly from there. And the kernel of truth in Barr's report was that Trump may have been guilty of acts of obstruction for which he wouldn't be charged, which is a lot less damaging than Trump withholding vitally important military aid from an ally in an effort to discredit his own intelligence agencies and exonerate the Russians.

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