Last weekend, Attorney General William Barr attempted and (for the moment) failed to purge chief New York prosecutor Geoffrey Berman, who is investigating Donald Trump and his friends. On the surface, the maneuver fit a long-standing pattern. Barr has been rebuked by Robert Mueller and a federal judge (both Republican appointees) for lying on Trump’s behalf, has directed an attack on peaceful protesters near the White House, and has dropped charges against two other Trump co-conspirators, provoking the resignations of several prosecutors. He certainly looks like a man trying to protect his boss.
But Barr’s allies have developed a different interpretation of this episode. The attorney general is merely the victim of bad optics, generously but clumsily seeking to find a safe landing spot for a needy attorney. Barr is a big, lovable golden retriever inexplicably cast as the heavy by the legions of implacable Trump haters.
Barr’s defenders concede that the episode may have appeared a bit awkward. (“We’re talking about what some could say is an inartfully handled personnel decision,” suggested Senator Lindsey Graham.) Their theory is that Barr was merely trying “to find a job” for Jay Clayton, as longtime Barr friend and Trump impeachment defense defender Jonathan Turley put it. Trump had recently golfed with Clayton, and then decided he was just the man to run the office that, by pure coincidence, is currently engaged in sensitive investigations of Trump’s allies and financial dealings.
Of course, Clayton already has a job, as chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. This fact makes it hard to understand why Trump and Barr would risk such an explosive backlash merely for the sake of securing employment for a man who is already collecting a steady paycheck.
The Wall Street Journal editorial page explains that the desire to find a soft landing for Clayton was the cause of the whole misunderstanding. “The highly competent Mr. Clayton, a New Yorker, had planned to leave the Administration but said he’d stay for the U.S. Attorney job.” So Clayton is a superstar who was determined to move back to New York. And Trump was desperate to keep him. Of course, New York City has plenty of law firms and banks that would be eager to hire the departing head of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Indeed, Clayton could command an enormous salary in such a position. Given that he has no experience as a prosecutor, the private sector would seem like a more suitable landing place.
Even if we assume that Trump’s only motive was to keep Jay Clayton on the government payroll at all costs, that still leaves a few unresolved questions. Why announce it late on Friday night, in a statement containing the significant lie that Berman had already resigned? And what about the still-pending investigations that Berman was directing at the time Barr unceremoniously dumped him?
The Journal waves away the first question with sarcasm:
So here’s the plan. We need to remove a U.S. Attorney because he’s investigating associates of the President. Let’s wait until four months before the election, and let’s do it on a Friday night so it looks suspicious and the guy can refuse to step down and make himself a martyr to the Resistance. Yeah, that’ll fool everybody.
And it dismisses the second with this hilariously self-refuting line: “Our Justice sources say Mr. Berman’s active investigations don’t involve Mr. Trump’s allies, except a minor one related to Trump adviser Rudy Giuliani.” Any investigation of Trump’s lawyer, who was acting at his direction, for an alleged federal crime by definition is not “minor.” Giuliani’s partners were already arrested at the airport.
Taken together, the two explanations stretch to the breaking point the presumption of innocence the Journal generously extends to Barr. Why would my client risk looking guilty by breaking into the museum just after it closed, when it contained nothing of value, except one minor collection of precious diamonds?