SAN DIEGO — What’s the matter with Washington?
Where should we start?
The Senate Judiciary Committee put on a three-ring circus last week where the spotlight was fixed on Attorney General William Barr, who testified about his interpretation of the Mueller report. Some of this is complicated, but what led us here is simple: In Washington, no one stays in their lane. Public officials often try to play a role assigned to someone else, grabbing as much power as they can with little or no restraint. The latest person to get grabby was Robert Mueller. A former FBI director who is now an attorney in private practice, Mueller was named special counsel and tasked with investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election.
What seems to have most interested him and his team of lawyers — many of whom worked in the Clinton or Obama administrations — was the possibility that Russia colluded with Donald Trump’s campaign.
They were not so interested in any Russian interference that might have helped Hillary Clinton’s campaign. This exercise was always about jamming up Trump.Now that the investigation is over, Mueller apparently wants to branch out and act as attorney general, a post to which he was not nominated or confirmed. After the actual attorney general, William Barr — who was nominated and confirmed — offered up a summary that Mueller felt “misrepresented” the findings of the report, Mueller fired off a letter to Barr. The special counsel essentially told the attorney general how to do his job — a job that Barr actually did once before, under President George H.W. Bush, and a job that Mueller has never done.
What do you know? Mueller’s ego is almost as big as Trump’s.
As Barr told the senators, Mueller was “exercising the powers of the attorney general, subject to the supervision of the attorney general.”
Barr was Mueller’s boss, and a supervisor doesn’t have to explain himself to a subordinate. It’s usually the other way around. Miraculously, Mueller’s letter found its way to The Washington Post before Barr testified. What are the odds?
In his opening remarks, committee Chairman Lindsey Graham said: “On the Republican side, we all agreed that Mr. Mueller should be allowed to do his job without interference.”
How about giving Barr the same courtesy? Mueller should stop interfering and let him do his job. That’s only fair — and poetic.
Certainly, Mueller isn’t the only person in Washington who is meddling in things that go way beyond his portfolio.
This whole thing started because Jeff Sessions, while serving as senator from Alabama, decided to moonlight as a top adviser to the Trump campaign. He also wanted to be attorney general, and Trump granted that wish. During the campaign, while acting as a representative for Trump, Sessions met more than once with the Russian ambassador. Those meetings ultimately forced him to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. That recusal led to the appointment of Mueller. And, well, you know the rest of the story.
Then there is James Comey, who sealed his fate when he angered both Republicans and Democrats by dabbling in politics leading up to the 2016 election.
While serving as FBI director, Comey also apparently wanted to go back to his Justice Department roots by playing prosecutor.
He concluded that “no prosecutor” would have brought a case against Hillary Clinton for her reckless use of government email, a determination that wasn’t his to make and which only fed the suspicion by conservatives that the very same FBI that was being super hard on Trump was also being extra soft on Clinton.
Finally, let’s not forget Rod Rosenstein, who has now resigned. As deputy attorney general, he urged that Comey be fired and oversaw both the Trump-Russia and Clinton-email investigations.
During the Senate hearing, Kamala Harris — a 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful who grilled Barr and then sent out a fundraising email based on her performance — insisted that Rosenstein should not have been in a position to help decide whether Trump could be charged with obstruction of justice for firing Comey since he was among those insisting that Comey be fired.
Harris nailed it. When people try to wear more than one hat, they cook up conflicts of interest. That’s the real problem.
Teach your children well, folks. Tell them that the secret to a happy life is to always do their jobs — and never try to do someone else’s.
It’s a valuable lesson that many folks in the nation’s capital refuse to learn.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. His daily podcast, “Navarrette Nation,” is available through every podcast app.