Way back in February, I gave Attorney General William Barr a tiny compliment for publicly complaining that Donald Trump was interfering in the work of the Justice Department in ways that “make it impossible for me to do my job.” Barr also pledged that he was “not going to be bullied or influenced by anybody,” including, he seemed to imply, the president.
The headline on that piece, “Let’s give Barr the credit he’s due for sort of standing up to Trump,” wasn’t exactly a vote of confidence, but an effort to take note of a rare example of anyone in Trumpland pushing back on anything Trump said or did.
Over the ensuing months, I decided I was wrong. Barr seemed utterly servile to Trump, and lent the credibility he had built up over a long career in government service to nothing but aiding and abetting Trump, often in what appeared to be highly questionable abuse of the Justice Department to help Trump and his cronies and punish or intimidate Trump’s critics and foes. I still think it’s best to assume that Trump demands, and generally receives, total obedience, even to the point of lying or cheating for him, from all his minions, and he gets roughly that level of obedience from Barr. I don’t claim to understand why.
My dear friend and long-time colleague Tom Hamburger, now of the Washington Post, is late in the process of profiling Barr. The piece, I gather, is in the hands of the editors and could appear any day.
But Hamburger sat Monday for a long interview/conversation with professor Larry Jacobs of the University of Minnesota and former Vice President Walter Mondale. I was in the audience, via Zoom, and learned a lot of what Tom has found in researching the Barr profile, which included a long interview with Barr. By the end I found myself still wondering whether Barr is anything but an obedient Trump enabler who puts loyalty to Trump ahead of all else.
I haven’t read any drafts of the unpublished profile, but after listening to the Hamburger-Mondale-Jacobs discussion, it appears that Hamburger, too, is open to believing that Barr is committed to some higher authorities than Trump, namely God (as seen by Catholics, including Barr).
But Barr also subscribes to a long-articulated but fairly extreme view of presidential power, sometimes dubbed the “unitary executive theory.”
A Washington veteran, Barr has held many Justice Department positions in the past and served previously as attorney general. Mondale said yesterday he remembers a time when Barr’s reputation was as “a moderate, not a right-winger.” But, since returning to lead the Justice Department under Trump, Mondale commented yesterday, “he had a bad start, and he seems in no rush to get over that.”
Barr came back to the attorney generalship after Trump’s first lickspittle choice, Jeff Session, was insufficiently obedient to the boss. Despite being a Trump toady, Sessions apparently believed an old notion that attorneys general were supposed to have some loyalty to the law that was higher than their loyalty to the president. One of the continuing mysteries about Barr is where he stands on that issue.
Hamburger said yesterday that in his interview with the attorney general he explicitly asked Barr, who is deeply religious, how someone who attaches as much importance to morality can work for Trump, who so often seems amoral.
He told the U of M audience that Barr replied: “All people are flawed, and no one is perfect.”
By the way, if you’re wondering what someone in Barr’s position might be able to do to help Trump get reelected, keep your eye on what’s called the “Durham investigation,” named for U.S. Attorney John Durham. Durham has been conducting a very secret and convoluted investigation into activities that Trump supporters believe may have constituted improper efforts by Democrats during 2016 to use the Justice Department to get dirt on Trump before he was elected.
That investigation is ongoing within Barr’s Justice Department, and could be fodder for an “October surprise” if Trump thinks he needs one. It’s too convoluted to go into here, but it came up in the Hamburger forum.
Trump himself has tweeted about the investigation, implying that important political dirt that will help him get reelected is being dug up.
Durham’s top deputy recently resigned, complaining about undue political pressure being applied by Barr to produce results prematurely, perhaps, some suspect, to help Trump before the election. Keep your eye on that one.
A few other outtakes from the CSPG seminar with my old buddy:
Hamburger also discussed the controversy around Barr’s handling of the public release of the Robert Mueller report. Before releasing Mueller’s full report, Barr released a so-called “summary” of it, which was widely criticized as biased in favor of a view that the report exonerated Trump of any wrongdoing, which it did not.
Hamburger also alluded to the possibility that efforts continue from within Barr’s Justice Department to contribute to Trump’s campaign to undermine confidence in mail-in voting.
He also reviewed various Justice Department actions viewed by critics as political favors to Trump, such as intervening to get more lenient treatment toward Trump’s allies, like Michael Flynn and Roger Stone, but harsher treatment of those who have turned on Trump, like Michael Cohen.