This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.
It would be grand to think of the report released last week by special counsel John Durham as the last nail in MAGA’s political coffin before it’s lowered into the hell-flames of the abyss. Of course, that’s not the case.
The product of a crackpot investigation that former Attorney General William Barr personally initiated and aggressively sponsored, Durham’s tendentious report on the Trumpist past is angled toward the Trumpist future. The result of Durham’s four-year-long re-investigation of the two-year-long Trump-Russia investigation, the report adds another 316 pages of camouflage to the story of Trump’s Russia ties. Among its useful additions is “the Clinton plan,” which is described — and described some more — as a nefarious plot by Democratic operatives to convince the public that Trump was in thrall to a foreign dictator. That Trump himself made this case repeatedly, before, during and after his presidency, is not a matter addressed by the report.
Still, it’s worth wondering why Barr, and Durham, went to such trouble. Durham failed in court to validate MAGA’s hard feelings about Trump’s alleged persecution, having lost both of the penny-ante cases that he brought, even though federal prosecutors enjoy a robust 83 percent conviction rate on cases that go to trial. Durham could have issued a brief, written lament and moved on. Instead, the Durham report is an expanded and footnoted version of Barr’s most famous rehab operation — his preemptive attack on special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, which Barr mischaracterized as an exoneration of both Trump’s Russia ties and Trump’s extensive obstruction of Mueller’s efforts to expose them.
Barr’s true reading of Trump’s compromised position — Durham’s report employs the word “Moscow” 71 times without dwelling on the Moscow tower for which Trump sought Kremlin approval in 2016 while repeatedly lying that he conducted no business in Russia — was never hard to glean. In appearances before Congress, Barr’s gruff certitudes invariably melted into mealy-mouth waffling whenever the topic turned to American candidates embracing foreign sabotage of elections.
In 2019, around the time that Trump’s boozy fixer Rudolph Giuliani was caught soliciting Ukrainian greasework to assist Trump’s 2020 campaign, Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) posed a hypothetical question to Barr. If North Korean intelligence officers were to offer a U.S. campaign dirt on an opponent, Coons asked, should that campaign contact the Federal Bureau of Investigation?
Questions about the propriety of North Korean intelligence operations are not typically tough calls for U.S. law enforcement officials. Yet Barr hemmed, initially speechless. Then he hawed. “A foreign intelligence service, yes,” he eventually allowed. Barr’s evasions prompted Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE) to ask Barr to make clear what conduct was “beyond the pale.” Barr never did.
In a House appearance in July 2020, in the thick of Trump’s reelection campaign, Barr did it again. Representative David Cicilline (D-RI) asked Barr, “Is it ever appropriate, Sir, for the president to solicit or accept foreign assistance in an election?”
Barr’s response: “It depends what kind of assistance.”
Barr’s laissez-faire approach to foreign sabotage was not a legal opinion: Foreigners are prohibited from providing anything of value to U.S. campaigns. It was a tacit admission that Barr’s chief client had an awkward history of corruption, and a manic compulsion for repeating it.
As the 2020 campaign progressed, Barr spread Trump’s false alarms about voting, even suggesting that U.S. postal workers would steal vote-by-mail ballots and sell them. After Trump’s defeat, Barr remained silent for four weeks while Trump lied, daily, about the election. When Barr finally acknowledged that the election outcome was legitimate, he did so in a single interview with the Associated Press. It was a sharp contrast to the camera-ready news conference in which Barr sandbagged Mueller. Then Barr slinked away from his post while Trump’s coup planning was vigorously under way.
Barr has remade himself as a Trump critic, but one who focuses on Trump’s chaos and incompetence rather than on his ambitions and the misdeeds that service them. Like many of his Republican peers, Barr wishes to retain, and nurture, Trumpism while dispensing with its sloppy avatar. His attempts to negate Trump’s Russian enterprise was always more than a play to rewrite the history of the 2016 election. It was an effort to paper over the sprawling moral degeneracy of Trumpism writ large, and to obscure the authoritarianism and thuggery — call it Putinism for short — that bled from Trump into virtually every corner of the party that Trump and Barr share.
The Durham report is a monument to that endeavor, 316 pages of whataboutism intended to distance Barr, Durham and all the corrupt and criminal hangers-on of Trump world from the sordid reality of their partisan labors, and the baseness of their political desires.
As president, Trump promoted Russian policy and propaganda at the expense of European allies, U.S. intelligence agencies and other American interests — not least Ukraine, the embattled American ally that was the target of Trump’s extortion. Trump’s veneration of Putin at their meeting in Helsinki was an unprecedented staging of presidential debasement. But it was not an isolated event. Nor did Trump, who yelped, “I alone can fix it,” soil the nation alone. His allies, Barr and Durham very much included, appear determined to continue doing so with or without him.