the republican party

Beware Bill Barr

His new book shows we have as much to fear from him as Donald Trump.

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

One of the mysteries of Bill Barr’s long life is how he went from a mostly uncontroversial Republican lawyer in the earlier part of his career to the staunch partisan that he is today. He has been on a press run in service of his 565-page memoir, One Damn Thing After Another, which mostly focuses on his tenure as Donald Trump’s second attorney general, and despite numerous sit-downs with Fox News, NBC News, CNN, and NPR, a publicity blitz that has resulted in the book debuting at No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list, that mystery remains largely intact.

The television-interview format has suited Barr well, allowing him to run circles around generalist news anchors with limited time for questioning while generating a slew of headlines based on their occasional shock at his answers. Perhaps most notable has been Barr’s insistence that he would vote to reelect Trump in 2024 if the former president is the Republican Party’s nominee, despite describing him in the book as having become “manic and unreasonable” and going “off the rails” after losing in 2020.

Because of the suspicion that Barr is using this media attention to launder his reputation, many liberals and legal commentators have suggested that the public should simply ignore his book, while others explicitly refuse to read it. The impulse is understandable — enriching Bill Barr is not exactly appealing — but as someone who has been highly critical of the man, I figured that I had some responsibility to hear his defense.

The result was illuminating, if not exactly educational. Barr was often criticized for using his office to serve as Trump’s de facto personal lawyer. But as the book makes clear, he is less interested in Trump than he is in advancing the Republican Party and its agenda. His explanation of many key events is highly tendentious, and parts of the book have not drawn the attention that they should have — in particular, the manic and at times bizarre passages that explain why he would support Trump again. And here lies, inadvertently, the story of what happened to Bill Barr.

On some points, One Damn Thing After Another is persuasive. Barr is sharply critical of the media’s performance during the Mueller investigation and its handling of the Steele dossier: “Any facts inconsistent with Steele’s dossier were ignored,” he writes, “while the slightest ‘tie’ or ‘connection’ with anything Russian — no matter how remote or apparently innocent — was hyped with banner headlines as if it validated the story and was a revelation on the scale of Watergate.” His repudiation of Trump’s false claims of election fraud — “The election was not ‘stolen.’ Trump lost it.” — is important and, given his standing within the party, could have some sway with the significant number of Republicans who continue to say that Trump actually won.

From there, it is pretty much downhill — a compendium of grievances that is alternately petty, disingenuous, and intellectually lazy.

The book is filled with drive-by character assassinations. Barr claims, without elaboration, that Anita Hill’s account of sexual harassment against Clarence Thomas during his Supreme Court confirmation process in 1991 “did not add up and was significantly undermined by other evidence.” He criticizes Anthony Fauci for having “a huge ego and penchant for self-promotion” (not the first or last time the book displays an acute lack of self-awareness). And he writes that Donald Ayer, a former colleague in the George H.W. Bush Justice Department, was incompetent and behaved “oddly,” without mentioning that Ayer was a prominent critic of his during the Trump years.

Barr claims that Robert Mueller had a “strong personal disdain” for Trump — again without offering any support for this sweeping claim — and implies that he was mentally incapacitated while running his investigation. Barr does the same with Joe Biden, calling the president “wavering” and “intermittently alert,” despite having served under a man who was often publicly incoherent and incapable of spelling basic words.

Barr’s account of the Trump-Russia investigation (what he repeatedly calls the “phony” “Russiagate” scandal) exemplifies much of the problem with Barr’s thinking and writing — a tendency to oversimplify and overstate the facts in the service of an expedient and apparently predetermined outcome. He claims that there was “no evidence of collusion” between the Trump campaign and Russia and ignores the most problematic public contacts between the campaign and putative Russian operatives. These include the Trump Tower meeting, the communications between Paul Manafort and Konstantin Kilimnik, and the meeting between George Papadopoulos and Joseph Mifsud, none of which appear in the book. He provides an extended defense of his infamous summary of the report — calling it “entirely accurate” and “in no way misleading” — but does not mention, much less engage with the fact, that a federal judge appointed by George W. Bush publicly chastised him for making “a calculated attempt to influence public discourse” about the report in favor of Trump.

Barr likewise claims that Mueller’s handling of the obstruction-of-justice analysis in his report — an inscrutable non-conclusion about Trump’s conduct that was nominally based on the fact that Justice Department policy prevented Mueller from indicting Trump — left it to him to decide “whether the evidence established obstruction of justice.” He says that he and his advisers concluded in a matter of days that Mueller’s team “didn’t have what they needed to prove obstruction but couldn’t bring themselves to say so.” Another federal judge, who has reviewed an internal memo from that period that the Justice Department still refuses to release in full, has called this claim “disingenuous” and concluded that the internal documents “belie the notion that it fell to the Attorney General to make a prosecution decision or that any such decision was on the table at any time.”

The book’s treatment of Barr’s interventions in the criminal cases against Trump advisers Michael Flynn and Roger Stone similarly hinges on straw men and crucial omissions. Barr justifies the department’s review of the case against Flynn following his guilty plea — which would eventually result in an unprecedented decision to dismiss the case — based on Flynn’s effort to withdraw his plea as well as Barr’s supposed concerns about the FBI’s overzealousness in the Trump-Russia investigation. In response to critics of his decision to override the sentencing recommendation of line prosecutors following Stone’s conviction, Barr rejects as “arrant nonsense” the notion that Justice Department policy “mandated that prosecutors seek the sentences dictated” by the federal sentencing guidelines, which is true but is also something that no credible observer claimed. In both cases, the most serious objection was the extraordinary and ad hoc nature of the decision-making process; the incredible tenuousness of the arguments that the department used to justify its decisions, which suggested a process of reverse-engineering legal rationales to support predetermined outcomes; and Barr’s unwillingness to extend the same process or leniency to anyone else.

Barr’s effort to cast himself as the truly apolitical actor during his tenure — “to ensure,” as he writes, that decisions were made “without regard to political or personal considerations” — also suffers from many conspicuous oversights. There is no mention of Barr’s ridiculous and failed effort to criminally investigate Obama officials for routine intelligence “unmasking” as part of the Trump-Russia investigation; the preposterous effort to stop the sale of a book by Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton after it was already in circulation; the department’s last-ditch intervention in support of Trump’s right to defame E. Jean Carroll (ultimately rejected by the presiding trial court but now, absurdly, on appeal with the support of the Merrick Garland Justice Department); the unexplained firing of Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman, who was evidently overseeing a criminal investigation involving Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani at the time; or, before Barr took office, his support for a criminal investigation of Hillary Clinton based on the convoluted conservative pseudo-scandal concerning the so-called Uranium One deal.

In other cases, Barr simply distorts the record or presents it in the most self-serving way possible. Barr was criticized for raising loud and unsupported alarms about the possibility of rampant voter fraud in the run-up to the 2020 election, thereby helping to lay the groundwork for the fantastical stolen-election theories that he criticizes Trump for later adopting. But in the retelling, this was simply “expressing concern about some of the changes” to election procedures associated with the pandemic, “especially universal mail-in voting.” There is no mention of his evidence-free claim that foreign governments could send in counterfeit ballots, which experts called “preposterous” and “false”; his claim that the department had indicted someone in Texas based on 1,700 fraudulent ballots — an assertion that a spokesperson quickly walked back (it turned out to be false in multiple ways) and blamed on someone else at the department; or the department’s highly unusual decision in the run-up to the election to publicize an investigation into possible election fraud that quickly collapsed because there was, in fact, no fraud in the episode in question.

Intellectual humility has never been Barr’s strong suit, but the self-regard on display throughout the book is startling all the same. So far as I could tell, there is no point in the book in which Barr admits a real mistake or says, even with the benefit of hindsight, that he would have done something differently over literally the entire course of his career. He appears comfortable providing confident proclamations on virtually any topic, however under- or uninformed he appears to be. He is never wrong and remarkably prescient — easily predicting in real time, if his account is to be believed, exactly how Trump would lose his reelection bid.

Some discrete claims from Barr that would have been dubious in any case have already been overtaken by events. Barr confidently declares, for instance, that “while some Russian foreign policy goals are in tension with our own, Russia’s leaders no longer promote a revolutionary ideology that foreordains general antagonism with the West” and that the country’s “foreign policy is now more purely a matter of Realpolitik.” Barr also downplays the call between Trump and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy that led to Trump’s first impeachment, describing Trump’s attempts to get Zelenskyy to dig up dirt on Joe Biden as merely “unseemly,” “injudicious,” and a part of typical “diplomatic give-and-take.” This all probably sounded much better when Barr was writing it than it does now, in the midst of a Russian war of aggression against Ukraine that has united the country and its European allies in outrage.

Barr also tries to legally exonerate Trump for his speech on January 6, 2021 — the one that led to Trump’s second impeachment after the violent siege of the U.S. Capitol. “Incitement has a legal definition,” Barr declares, “and Trump’s statements would not fit that definition in any American court.” Weeks ago, the court overseeing a civil case against Trump rejected his effort to dismiss a case based on precisely this theory.

All of this pales in comparison to Barr’s denunciation of the Democratic Party in particular and modern liberalism in general — the basis for his position that he would vote for Trump again in 2024 if he wins the GOP nomination — which is laid out very clearly in a series of unhinged diatribes spread across the text.

When describing his decision to support Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016, Barr writes that the Democratic Party is in thrall to a “Far Left progressive ideology” that aims “to tear down and remake American society” through “totalitarian ideas” akin to those “that propelled the French Revolution, the Communists of the Russian Revolution, and the Fascists of twentieth-century Europe.” The proponents of this movement, he writes, “support racial discrimination against whites, the abolition of any male-female binary, the elimination of national borders, the active use of censorship against dissent, and the foreswearing of free speech and open debate in favor of an ideologically correct curricula of a race-fixated anti-Americanism.”

He proceeds to argue that the party’s “economic program, tucked under the banner of ‘social justice,’ is a version of Marxist redistributionism” whose “tacit goal” is not to alleviate poverty and suffering but “to convert all of us into twenty-five-year-olds living in the government’s basement, focusing our energies on obtaining a larger allowance rather than getting a job and moving out.” He denounces “most of the elites who’ve fallen under the progressive banner” as “useful idiots,” who “fear ostracism for failing to keep up with the political program.” He writes off “the media” as “the progressive movement’s propaganda arm.”

Barr ridicules the effort to address the “root causes” of crime (a “mantra” that “is really an excuse to do nothing”), claims that the Obama administration waged a “war against police,” and denounces the “catch-and-release” policies of progressive prosecutors who are “funded by the likes of billionaire George Soros” and who “may have good intentions” but are in fact “destroying lives.” He says that he supported Trump’s effort to “strengthen immigration controls,” and though he is careful not to address the matter head-on, he appears to have supported the morally grotesque family-separation policy implemented by Trump and his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions.

Above all, however, Barr is concerned with the handful of cultural issues that now seem to preoccupy many conservatives — what he ties together as an effort by “the secular state” to “invade the space of religion” through “a totalizing religion of irreligion” that, in turn, “attempts to usurp religion’s role in educating men’s souls.” Barr said things like this while in office, but he is more direct here than he has been in the past.

Among other things, Barr takes issue with the repeal of “laws against abortion” and “sodomy” as well as the legalization of gay marriage. Barr adopts the modern conservative legal posture in opposition to these developments — a supposed “live-and-let live stance” that would exempt “religious organizations” and “religious people” who wish to act “in ways that convey their views,” like refusing to hire someone on the basis of sexual orientation or opting their children out of “LGBTQ curriculum” if they “disagree with the content of the courses.” “It is not enough that gay people are free to marry,” he writes, but “now schoolchildren must be indoctrinated into the worldview that morally validates same-sex marriage.”

Barr also rejects the idea “that there are more than two genders” as “a moral, psychological, and metaphysical dogma of the new progressive orthodoxy — a dogma decidedly at odds with objective reality.” He describes this and “critical race theory” — which, spoiler alert, he also has strong feelings about — as “God-less materialist philosophies” that should not be taught in public schools.

If this is what you believe you are up against, it is not hard to see why you would support Trump. Nearly a decade later, the right still purports to have been scandalized by the time that Eric Holder, Obama’s first attorney general, referred to himself as the president’s “wingman.” Meanwhile, Barr writes in his book, “I am under no illusion about who is responsible for dividing the country, embittering our politics, and weakening and demoralizing our nation.” It is “the progressive Left and their increasingly totalitarian ideals.”

Barr’s book suggests that his interests align largely with the concerns that are commonly aired in the right-wing-media ecosystem that is anchored by Fox News — one in which local controversies about school curricula receive national attention and are woven into a broader narrative of terminal cultural decline and conservatives fulminate about a conspiracy among “the media, Big Tech, and the coastal elites” to destroy Republicans, in Barr’s own words.

Whether this convergence is a result of the fact that Barr has been influenced by that media or if it simply reaffirms his views is not clear. Either way, his political and cultural preoccupations are about as innovative — and about as subtle — as a Tucker Carlson monologue. As Barr’s book and his recent tour of the media circuit make clear, Barr was not Trump’s “personal lawyer” but the GOP’s lawyer — an unapologetic political combatant who is, as a result, loved by the party’s Establishment despite (or perhaps even because of) his intellectual blinders and limitations.

It is tempting, as many Establishment liberals and legal pundits have decided to do, to ignore or dismiss Barr’s book on this basis, but that may ultimately prove shortsighted. There is good reason to believe that Barr’s views are far more represented among conservatives voters than they would like to admit, and one way or another, those views need to be reckoned with. As important, the relatively young acolytes and sycophants who surrounded Barr in the Justice Department — people who do not seem to have disagreed with him in any serious way at any point during his controversial tenure — will likely be back in a future GOP administration, having learned all of the worst lessons about how to leverage official government power for partisan ends and to justify that effort through a combination of shamelessness and self-delusion. Barr, unfortunately, is not an aberration or an elderly crank. As his memoir shows, he is the past, the present, and the future of the GOP.

Beware Bill Barr