For starters, I would like to say a few words in defense of Attorney General William Barr. He is being much maligned, even vilified, as a mumbling, bumbling, dissembling, lying apologist for President Donald Trump.
And I just want to note for the record that America’s 85th attorney general (who was also America’s 77th attorney general under President George H.W. Bush) is a very smart man who always knows precisely what he is doing. And why. And assumes he can get away with it.
On Wednesday, Barr knew precisely what he was just doing at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, when you saw him on your news screens. You saw him performing as a mumbling, bumbling, dissembling apologist for President Trump.
But Barr was careful to be technically precise. He was under control as he performed the role of a maybe-deceiving-but-never-quite-lying Trump apologist. It seemed that made it an acceptable trade-off, as he sees things. Because Barr’s ultimate mission, as discerned from past writings and comments, is to be our ultimate definer and defender of the strongest-conceivable presidency that can exist in our constitutional democracy.
That became clear Wednesday the moment we saw Barr elaborate on his neo-Nixonian authoritarian view that a president can simply shut down any special counsel investigation (Barr called it a “proceeding”) — even one into his own actions.
“If it was a groundless proceeding, if it was based on false allegations, uh, the president does not have to sit there, constitutionally, and let it run its course,” Barr testified. “The president could terminate that proceeding and it would not be corrupt intent, because he was being falsely accused.”
(FLASHBACK: We can still hear former president Richard Nixon, who ordered the infamous Saturday Night Massacre and ended up a resigned-in-disgrace private citizen, telling interviewer David Frost: “But when the president does it that means it is not illegal.”)
Barr, being a smart man, knew precisely what he was doing a month ago, when he issued his infamous March 24 mini-memo to Congress after receiving the special counsel’s report on Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and Team Trump’s Russia connections. Barr provided as little actual news as possible — just saying Mueller found no Trump Team conspiracy with Russia and he found no proof of obstruction of justice. Period.
Then Barr clamped on a news blackout, gifting Trump with several weeks where he could lie to Americans that he’d been totally exonerated — so people might tire of the yammer before the full report came out.
During those weeks, Barr flatly misled and deceived Congress by insisting to Congress under oath that he didn’t know if Mueller was displeased by his obstruction decision and news-lite memo. But this week, we discovered Barr know damn well back on March 27 Mueller had written him to complain. Mueller said there was “public confusion” because Barr’s memo “did not capture the content, nature, and substance of this Office’s work and conclusions.”
Barr was also smart enough to know how he could take advantage of Mueller and gift-wrap for Trump a few weeks of a special counsel news blackout. After all, Barr and Mueller have been good friends for three decades. Their wives went to Bible school together; the Muellers attended the Barr daughters’ weddings. Barr knew Mueller was a straight-arrow sort who obeyed all rules, and was easy to manipulate.
Indeed, Barr got his job after writing an op-ed column calling Mueller’s pursuit of obstruction of justice effort “asinine.” Then he wrote a long memo about it and sent it to Trump’s White House.
For one month, Barr had pasted on his blankest of blank expressions, mumbled, bumbled, dissembled but maybe didn’t flat-out lie to Congress. And Mueller dutifully still went quietly through channels, never blowing his whistle.
Until Wednesday. When senators asked Barr why he’d deceived Congress by never mentioning Mueller’s letter, the 85th U.S. attorney general said dismissively: “Y’know, the letter’s a bit snitty and I think it was probably written by one of his staff people.”
Scholars have different ways of analyzing such moments. Psychologists like to talk about “transference” — it’s where one person projects what he or she is feeling onto to another. And Barr’s ever-blank face indeed betrayed a flash of grimace you’d expect from someone who was suffering a bit of a snit-fit, himself.
But that was also the sort of sudden twist of the literary knife of poetic justice, a moment that could someday end up enlivening a thesis of a Shakespearean scholar, perhaps even one who once matriculated at, say, Trump University.
Er tu Barr?
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.