the national interest

In Terrifying Interview, William Barr Goes Full MAGA

Attorney General William Barr. Photo: CBS This Morning

After the legal Establishment had granted him the benefit of the doubt, Attorney General William Barr has shocked his erstwhile supporters with his aggressive and frequently dishonest interventions on behalf of President Trump. The spectacle of an esteemed lawyer abetting his would-be strongman boss’s every authoritarian instinct has left Barr’s critics grasping for explanations. Some have seized on the darker threads of his history in the Reagan and Bush administrations, when he misled the public about a secret Department of Justice memo and helped cover up the Iran-Contra scandal.

But Barr’s long, detailed interview with Jan Crawford suggests the rot goes much deeper than a simple mania for untrammeled Executive power. Barr has drunk deep from the Fox News worldview of Trumpian paranoia.

It is hard to convey how far over the edge Barr has gone without reading the entire interview, which lasted an hour. But a few key comments illustrate the depth of his investment in Trump’s perspective.

Barr, as he has done repeatedly, provides a deeply misleading account of what Robert Mueller found. “He did not reach a conclusion,” he says. “He provided both sides of the issue, and … his conclusion was he wasn’t exonerating the president, but he wasn’t finding a crime either.”

As Mueller stated in the report and again at his press conference, he felt bound by a policy preventing him from charging the president with a crime, or even saying the president had committed a crime. Mueller’s view is that his job vis-à-vis presidential misconduct is to describe the behavior and leave it up to Congress to decide if it’s a crime. Several hundred former federal prosecutors have stated, and Mueller clearly signaled, the actions he described in the Mueller report are crimes, or would be if the president could be charged with a crime.

Later in the interview, Barr grossly contradicts Mueller’s findings with regard to Trump’s ties to Russia. “Mueller has spent two and half years, and the fact is, there is no evidence of a conspiracy,” he says. “So it was bogus, this whole idea that the Trump was in cahoots with the Russians is bogus.”

This is just a wild lie. Mueller was unable to establish a criminal conspiracy between Trump and Russia. He was unable to establish this, in part, because “some individuals invoked their Fifth Amendment right,” or “provided information that was false or incomplete,” or “deleted relevant communications.” Indeed, the two Trump campaign officials most closely linked to Russian cutouts, Paul Manafort and Roger Stone, refused to cooperate with prosecutors. A failure to establish a criminal conspiracy is not the same thing as finding “no evidence of a conspiracy.” Nowhere does the Mueller report say there’s no evidence of a conspiracy. Some of the potential conspiracy elements were unprovable — Mueller never figured out why Manafort gave 75 pages of polling data to a Russian agent.

Barr, amazingly, goes even farther to say the report proved “this whole idea that the Trump was in cahoots with the Russians is bogus.” In fact, the Mueller report notes that it did not even try to establish whether the campaign was “in cahoots” with Russia. The report states that it “applied the framework of conspiracy law, not the concept of ‘collusion.’”

The report in fact finds extensive evidence that Trump was in cahoots with Russia. His top campaign officials took a meeting with a Russian agent promising them help from the Russian government. Trump asked Russia on camera to hack his opponent’s emails, and they carried out a hacking attempt that day. Trump was pursuing a lucrative, no-risk business deal requiring Russian government approval during the campaign and lying about it, making him vulnerable to blackmail by Russia. Sharing an explosive secret that could destroy your campaign in order to potentially collect a massive payoff from a party that you know is doing illegal things to help you is the definition of being in cahoots.

Barr goes on to repeat Trump’s obsession with texts capturing the political chatter of Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, two romantically-involved FBI agents. “It’s hard to read some of the texts with and not feel that there was gross bias at work, and they’re appalling,” he tells Crawford.

There is, in fact, nothing unusual about FBI agents expressing political opinions. An investigation by the FBI’s Inspector General “did not find evidence to connect the political views expressed in these messages to the specific investigative decisions that we reviewed.” And no serious person doubts the overall weight of political opinion at the FBI leans rightward. The bureau has never had a Democratic director, and James Comey testified that, during the campaign, agents appeared to be leaking heavily to Rudy Giuliani. (Comey violated policy by scolding Clinton, and then publicly reopening the investigation, in part due to the pressure of the leaks from the FBI’s pro-Trump cabal.) Barr’s depiction of the FBI as a bastion of anti-Trump sentiment is grossly at odds with the evidence.

Even more astonishingly, Barr proceeds from that false premise to liken the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation of Trump to right-wing birther conspiracies:

I think if the shoe was on the other foot we could be hearing a lot about it. If those kinds of discussions were held, you know, when Obama first ran for office, people talking about Obama in those tones and suggesting that “Oh that he might be a Manchurian candidate for Islam or something like that.” You know some wild accusations like that and you had that kind of discussion back and forth, you don’t think we would be hearing a lot more about it?

By likening the Russia scandal to birther conspiracies, Barr is tracking the arguments made by the most fanatical members of the pro-Trump commentariat, who treat it as a complete hoax. In fact, the Trump campaign had dozens and dozens of contacts with Russians, cultivating and relying on their hidden and sometimes illegal support. For Barr to liken these connections to a completely fabricated theory about Obama as a secret Muslim agent boggles the mind.

Barr portrays the Russia investigation as an effort to overturn Trump’s election:

I mean, republics have fallen because of Praetorian Guard mentality where government officials get very arrogant, they identify the national interest with their own political preferences and they feel that anyone who has a different opinion, you know, is somehow an enemy of the state. And you know, there is that tendency that they know better and that, you know, they’re there to protect as guardians of the people. That can easily translate into essentially supervening the will of the majority and getting your own way as a government official.

This is Trump’s own favorite conspiracy theory, dressed up in more elevated language than Trump himself can muster — “Praetorian Guard mentality” — but making the same ugly charge that the FBI plotted an illegal coup to stop Trump’s election.

Barr hints repeatedly throughout the interview that he has seen secret evidence he cannot share that supports his sinister conclusion. “I have not gotten answers that are well satisfactory, and in fact probably have more questions, and that some of the facts that I’ve learned don’t hang together with the official explanations of what happened,” he says. “That’s all I really will say. Things are just not jiving.”

It is impossible to disprove Barr’s claim to have uncovered a secret cabal to defeat Trump. But one might wonder why this cabal chose to infiltrate Trump’s campaign in an effort to smear him as a Russian stooge, and then fail to use the dirt before the election. Indeed, even as reporters were probing Trump’s growing swath of shady Russia ties, the FBI was aggressively spinning the opposite story to the media. The New York Times reported this spin in a now-infamous story asserting “No clear link to Russia,” and “even the hacking into Democratic emails, F.B.I. and intelligence officials now believe, was aimed at disrupting the presidential election rather than electing Mr. Trump.”

Barr’s theory is that a partisan cabal of rabid Trump-haters decided to undermine his campaign by ginning up a phony scandal that they kept secret, even lying to the media, is like the Dr. Strangelove Soviet Doomsday machine. (The device deterred a nuclear first strike by automatically launching a response, but the Soviets neglected to tell the United States because “the Premier loves surprises.”)

The most frighteningly clarifying comment comes at the end, when Barr lays out his belief that President Trump poses no threat whatsoever to democratic norms. The threat is the “resistance”:

I think one of the ironies today is that people are saying that it’s President Trump that’s shredding our institutions. I really see no evidence of that, it is hard, and I really haven’t seen … particulars as to how that’s being done. From my perspective the idea of resisting a democratically elected president and basically throwing everything at him and, you know, really changing the norms on the grounds that we have to stop this president, that is where the shredding of our norms and our institutions is occurring.

In fact, the opposition to Trump has been marked, on the whole, by its fastidious restraint. At times Barr has used their restraint against them. Because Mueller believed his role prevents him from labeling Trump’s actions crimes, Barr says Mueller couldn’t decide if they were criminal or not. He says the relatively mild steps taken to investigate Trump’s ties to Russia during the campaign prove the concerns couldn’t have been serious. (“I’m wondering what exactly was the response to it if they were alarmed,” he sneers to Crawford. “Surely the response should have been more than just, you know, dangling a confidential informant in front of a peripheral player in the Trump campaign.”) If the FBI was investigating Trump, it proves they were out to get him, but if they tread lightly, it proves Trump was innocent.

As far as Barr is concerned, Trump has done nothing wrong, and all the shredding of norms has been done against him, not by him. Trump’s calls to jail all his opponents, his non-stop lies, his demands to punish independent media and satirists, his open conviction that law enforcement should operate at his personal command and follow him loyally, not to mention the repeated obstruction of justice detailed by Mueller — none of it concerns Barr even slightly.

Everything Barr has said and done during this investigation tells us he is not lying about this belief. The terrifying truth is that he all but surely believes every word.