The mess in Washington got stereophonically worse Wednesday, as the sounds of the capital city’s Tweeter and the Woofer reverberated through the corridors of power at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
And once again we learned the lesson that Washington has failed to learn: Be wary of Reformers. In their rush to reform, even the best-intentioned of the bunch often make a bad situation worse.
On the White House South Lawn, America’s Tweeter-in-Chief kept his smartphone in his pocket and went old-school. President Donald Trump used the news media’s electronic megaphone to broadcast to the world his latest top-decibel frenetic description of special counsel Robert Mueller’s team and its motives. He called them all Democrats:
“18 angry Democrats … people that truly hated Donald Trump … It was an illegal investigation … Everything about it was crooked … dirty cops … bad people. This was an attempted coup. … an attempted takedown of a president … Hopefully the attorney general … (is) getting started on going back to the origins of exactly where this all started. Because this was an illegal witch-hunt …what they did was treason…”
Sixteen blocks up Pennsylvania Avenue, virtually simultaneously, Trump’s new Woofer, Attorney General William Barr, stunned a Senate hearing by implying the feds spied on Trump’s 2016 campaign. “I think spying on a political campaign is a big deal,” Barr testified. “…I think it’s important to look at that.”
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) gave him a chance to un-dig his hole: “You’re not suggesting that spying occurred?” Barr hesitated, stumbled, mumbled, and then went all in, bigtime: “I think spying did occur, yes. I think spying did occur.”
“Spying.” Barr deliberately chose NOT to say the FBI “investigated” in response to intelligence reports about low-level Trump campaign advisers George Papadopoulos and Carter Page making questionable foreign contacts. And didn’t add that all monitoring of Page’s communications was court authorized. Just called it “spying” — delighting his boss.
Barr is redacting portions of Mueller’s report before giving it to Congress. He can do that because of a myopic 1999 reform in response to then-independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s sexually graphic report about President Bill Clinton’s extracurriculars. Now we’re stuck with a non-independent “special” counsel who must submit his report to the attorney general, who will decide which bad stuff we can see about the president who hired him.
Absurd. During John F. Kennedy’s presidency, would we really want Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy deciding what potentially damaging info about his brother Congress could see? In Richard Nixon’s first term, pre-Watergate, would we really want The Decider to have been Nixon’s pal, Attorney General John Mitchell?
In 1999, I considered that special counsel reform absurd. In 2019, we’re seeing why.
Here’s a far better solution: Require special counsels to redact their own reports to comply with legal and security concerns. Then require special counsels to submit their full reports and redacted reports to the attorney general — plus the chair and ranking minority member of all appropriate congressional committees. Permit any of them to make the redacted reports public. Let them view the full reports in secure facilities.
EPILOGUE: Watching Wednesday’s mind-boggling POTUS-AG duet, I found myself thinking it might have been impossible — if only those 1999 reformers who made the A.G. our Ultimate Decider had been with me during a vivid moment that occurred a few political eons earlier:
Late one Sunday night, I was in line at New York’s LaGuardia Airport waiting to board a shuttle flight back to Washington, which was just getting back to its normal abnormality. It was months after the Watergate scandal shattered Richard Nixon’s presidency. And I was lost in thought, debating whether to start Monday morning at the federal courthouse, where one of the last big Watergate trials was wrapping up. Or, after two years of investigating the Nixon Team’s high crimes and cover-ups as Newsday’s Washington bureau chief, why not just put Watergate behind me?
In my mid-debate, I was startled to hear a deep, familiar voice behind me:
I turned and, four persons behind me, I saw a very familiar face, semi-smiling around his familiar unlit pipe clenched in his teeth – John Mitchell. Nixon’s ex-attorney general and campaign chairman knew all about our investigative efforts. He also knew his ex-boss viewed me as not just another media enemy but something worse: In an Oval Office tape, Nixon refers to me as one of “those Jews” who are investigating him.
Now Mitchell is heading to that Washington courthouse for the conclusion of his trial. I walked back to where he was standing. We were both bemused at our chance encounter.
“How are you holding up, Mr. Attorney General?” I asked.
“Well, pretty good,” he replied – paused, then added: “Considering I’m headed for the slammer.”
The memory of America’s former top law enforcement official referring to his upcoming imprisonment in the script cliche’ of a Hollywood gangster flick (a la Jimmy Cagney or George Raft) remains, indelibly, an all-time incongruity. I wished him good health. He wished me good luck. We boarded, sat separately. Mitchell would serve 14 months for conspiracy, obstruction of justice and perjury. I didn’t attend his sentencing.
Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.