Eight months ago, Attorney General William Barr very publicly threatened to resign if President Trump did not stop publicly telling him who to prosecute. Barr might not be a believer in conventional norms of political noninterference in the Justice Department, but he does believe in the appearance of it. He is willing to investigate Trump’s enemies, but he understands that if he does so after Trump publicly orders up the charges, it looks rather bad. Barr has been “persistently vexed” by the tweets, considered a round of February demands to go easy on loyal Trump accomplice Roger Stone “something of a last straw,” and told the Washington Post, via a “person familiar with Barr’s thinking,” that “He has his limits.”
If anybody had been bluffed by Barr’s vocal threats that he would turn this car right around and go home if Trump did not pipe down, Trump was not one of them. The president only briefly paused his public campaign of directing Barr’s work, and in recent days has exploded in rage at Barr’s failure to produce criminal charges against the Deep State before the election. If Barr has limits, these are not them.
Trump’s agita centers around the failure of John Durham, the prosecutor Barr tabbed to run his counter-investigation of Robert Mueller, to produce the evidence Barr tasked him with finding before the election. On September 27, Fox News ranting head Maria Bartiromo reported Durham would not cough up any charges or a report before the election. (As dubious as Fox News opinion-side reporting may be, its legal-style analysts are pretty well hooked in to Barr’s team.) Axios confirms that Barr has been breaking the news to top Republicans that Durham won’t have anything before the election. “Barr is communicating that Durham is taking his investigation extremely seriously and is focused on winning prosecutions,” the story notes.
This is certainly one explanation. Another, more plausible explanation is that Durham has not been able to find any crimes because they don’t exist. The FBI opened an investigation into the Trump campaigns connections to Russia because there was extensive evidence of covert ties. Even though Trump floated pardons to his aides and got Stone and Paul Manafort, the two highest-level backchannels to the Russian hack and leak operation, to withhold cooperation, it still produced criminal convictions of seven Trump associates. It also proved that Trump opened himself to Russian leverage by secretly negotiating for a no-risk deal worth several hundred million dollars while publicly lying about it.
Barr has turned the Russia investigation upside-down by scrubbing every step for cut corners. They’ve found the equivalent of low-level staffers neglecting to put cover sheets on their TPS reports. But his narrative that the entire Russia investigation was a sinister coup attempt has fallen flat because it is utterly false.
“This is the nightmare scenario,” a Republican aide tells Axios, “Essentially, the year and a half of arguably the number one issue for the Republican base is virtually meaningless if this doesn’t happen before the election.” Funny, if the reason for the investigation is to cover alleged crimes committed by the Deep State, why is it meaningless if they are “exposed” after the election? Isn’t the supposed point to hold the alleged criminals legally responsible for their misdeeds?
Trump’s impression certainly seems to be that if he wins reelection, he will find some other way to bring the law down upon his opponents. “Unless Bill Barr indicts these people for crimes, the greatest political crime in the history of our country, then we’re going to get little satisfaction unless I win and we’ll just have to go, because I won’t forget it,” he announced on Fox News, in what would constitute a presidency-destroying impeachable offense if any normal president had uttered it, “But these people should be indicted. This was the greatest political crime in the history of our country, and that includes Obama and it includes Biden.”
Barr is once again upset that his boss is giving the game away. The A.G. “has privately expressed frustration over the public comments, according to a person familiar with his thinking,” the Associated Press reports, “It’s not dissimilar to a situation earlier this year, when Trump complained publicly that he believed ally Roger Stone was getting a raw deal in his prosecution, even as Barr had already moved to amend a sentencing position of the prosecutors in the case.”
It is dissimilar, though, in the following sense. In February, Barr claimed Trump’s public demands to dictate Barr’s decisions were so intolerable he would quit if they continue. Now he is merely grumbling off the record. Trump may not be an intelligent man, but he can knows how to find a useful accomplice. Barr has sacrificed whatever reputation he had in Trump’s service. His soul is too far in debt to quit now.