Every Republican remembers with disgust the video of Bill Clinton glowering into the camera and declaring: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. I never told anybody to lie, not a single time; never. These allegations are false.”
It’s worth revisiting why that statement was so infuriating. It wasn’t because we — well, let me speak for myself, I — was outraged at the idea of a president having an affair with a young intern (though that part of it). No, it was the lying. Clinton lied and lied and lied. He even lied under oath. Lying is cheating. Lying displays contempt for other people.
Today, the attorney general of the United States asserts, in terms that should make Clinton smile, that because the president of the United States was “frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents, and fueled by illegal leaks,” he could not be considered guilty of obstruction of justice.
Other Republicans echo this line, arguing that the nature of the false allegations against President Donald Trump bruited in the press and among some Democrats — that he was a Russian sleeper agent; that the Russians had “kompromat” on him; that some accusations arose from Clinton surrogates — tainted the entire investigation and justified his flamboyant attempts to obstruct it. But the fact that some allegations are outlandish doesn’t mean all allegations are false. Clinton was accused of running illegal drugs through the Mena Airport in Arkansas and being complicit in the death of Vince Foster. By Barr’s logic, it was therefore OK that he lied under oath about Lewinsky.
“No underlying crime, therefore no obstruction,” they say. But Clinton encouraged his secretary to lie about Lewinsky to avoid embarrassment, not to hide a crime. Many Democrats, but zero Republicans, said that reason excused the lying.
Not only have Republicans utterly reversed themselves about the importance of truth telling, they’ve also leaned in. William Barr told the world that the president “fully cooperated with the Special Counsel’s investigation.” This is laughable. Yes, he turned over some documents and permitted aides to be interviewed, but he fired the director of the FBI and told Russian visitors that this relieved great “pressure due to the Russia thing.” He ordered Robert Mueller to be fired for risible “conflicts” (such as asking for his old FBI job back, which was itself a lie). He lied about the meeting in Trump Tower. He tasked Corey Lewandowski with ordering Attorney General Jeff Sessions to unrecuse himself and instruct the special counsel to limit his inquires only to future election interference. He asked his White House counsel to lie about whether he had ordered Mueller fired. He claimed he could not recall events 30 times in response to written questions. He repeatedly refused requests to sit for an in-person interview, and he dangled pardons to those facing criminal trials to discourage cooperation with law enforcement. “Stay strong,” our don-in-chief told his felonious former lawyer — “hang in there.” And throughout it all, he kept up a steady campaign of delegitimization of the Mueller inquiry as a “witch hunt” and a “hoax.”
Anyone would have been upset, Trump’s defenders explain, at being falsely accused. It was his consciousness of innocence, not guilt, that caused him to lash out.
Really? Does that seem logical? An innocent man would have thrown open his files, freely testified, left the investigator unmolested (verbally and with regard to firing), and kept his mouth shut about former associates under indictment.
Besides, Trump may have been concerned that the investigation would uncover other wrongdoing — such as tax evasion or paying off porn stars in the midst of a presidential campaign. Or it’s possible that hiding more contacts with agents of the Kremlin was the true motive — and that it worked. Mueller’s report says that, in addition to Trump’s failure to testify and faulty memory, many witnesses lied, destroyed evidence and successfully encrypted communications. Given these clear acts of obstruction, Mueller’s report noted that “the Office cannot rule out the possibility that the unavailable information would shed additional light on (or cast in a new light) the events described in the report.” That is what Trump and his minions call “total exoneration.”
None of this is to suggest that the Congress should impeach Trump. There are prudential reasons to avoid that course. The president would relish the mud fight, voters are already exhausted, and an election is only 18 months away. But the Mueller report provides abundant evidence that the president attempted to obstruct justice and abused his power. The past few weeks have seen the attorney general and most of the Republican Party distort those findings and attempt to hoodwink the Republican rank and file.
Is lying wrong? Depends upon the meaning of the word “is.”