Barr’s Too Little, Too Late Tour
In truth, not close to enough.
The NYT‘s summary of Bill Barr’s appearance on Face the Nation contains a quote that I would claim is erroneous, Barr Says Documents Case Against Trump Is ‘Entirely of His Own Making’). So, on the one hand, yes, as the seeming willful perpetrator of criminal activity (in the face of reluctant federal officials and numerous chances to give the documents back), Trump is the author of this situation. But on the other, many, many enablers helped create this situation and Bill Barr is one of those enablers.
At any rate, here is a summary of the FTN appearance:
William P. Barr, who served as attorney general under President Donald J. Trump, excoriated his former boss on Sunday for “reckless conduct” that led to Mr. Trump’s indictment on charges of mishandling classified documents, saying that the case was “entirely of his own making.”
Mr. Barr, in an interview with CBS News’s “Face the Nation,” walked through the severity of the charges against Mr. Trump. He described the former president’s actions — laid out in a 49-page indictment — as harmful not only to the country, but also to the Republican Party and the conservative movement that Mr. Trump leads.
Mr. Barr also attacked Mr. Trump’s character in extraordinary language, describing him as “a consummate narcissist” and a “fundamentally flawed person” who would always put his own ego ahead of everything else. He added that he believed Mr. Trump had lied to the Justice Department about the classified documents in his possession.
“He’s like a defiant 9-year-old kid who is always pushing the glass towards the edge of the table, defying his parents from stopping him from doing it,” Mr. Barr said, adding that “our country can’t be a therapy session for a troubled man like this.”
Mr. Trump “has been the victim of unfair witch hunts in the past,” Mr. Barr said on Sunday. But, he insisted, the charges in the documents case were very different.
“This was a case entirely of his own making,” Mr. Barr said. “He had no right to those documents. The government tried over a year, quietly and with respect, to get them back — which it was essential that they do — and he jerked them around. And he had no legal basis for keeping them.”
Barr came to the DOJ in early 2019 having previously served as Attorney General for President George H. W. Bush. There was a brief moment in which some thought he would be a needed adult in the room, given Trump’s overall propensity for putting hacks and incompetents into positions of authority. Of course, that view did not last long. Barr was a substantial defender of Trump up and until this time he resigned in the waning days of the administration.
I would note that his resignation was of a piece of the thesis of this post. Barr left at a time that clearly was linked to Trump’s post-election behavior. And we know from his testimony to Congress that he had advised Trump that his claims were, and I quote, “bullshit.” Yet, his resignation letter was fawning and he did not see fit to share what he knew with the American people. It felt to me at the time like he was sending a signal by resigning, but doing so in a way that allowed him to feel better about himself without actually risking his standing with his political tribe and without damaging his party.
It was, in my mind, gutless and he continues to engage in half (quarter?) measures that he clearly thinks shows his moral courage, but I would argue is still cloaked in cowardice.
Since his resignation Barr has, in my view, danced a weird dance wherein he says some pretty damning things about Trump (such as “He’s like a defiant 9-year-old kid who is always pushing the glass towards the edge of the table, defying his parents from stopping him from doing it…our country can’t be a therapy session for a troubled man like this”) while at that same time always going out of his way to still defend Trump in other ways (“has been the victim of unfair witch hunts in the past”).
What this has the effect of doing, in my view, is getting Trump opponents to react to the negative statements, while the Trump supporters are still comforted by the positive ones.
I had forgotten until I started looking back at the archives, but I wrote a similar post about Barr in November of 2022 (Barr on Trump) which had the subtitle “Waaaay too little, waaay too late.” In my post, I wrote the following:
Quite frankly, this kind of essay (of which I expect to see a lot between now and 2024’s primary season) feels an awful lot like apologies that consist of “I am sorry if anyone was offended” (or, perhaps more accurately, simply sorry that they got caught). This also feels a lot like 2015 and up and until Trump won the Electoral Vote in 2016 when all the Serious Republicans were siding against Trump until, you know, he won, and then over time a lot of those Serious Republicans decided that they could stomach Trump after all.
If Barr really wants to stop Trump, he needs to tell the unvarnished truth about his time in the administration and be willing to do a real mea culpa personally and on his party’s behalf. To try and have his cake and eat it too on this is simply unacceptable, but is certainly what one would expect from a toady like Barr.
This still feels largely relevant to the way Barr is discussing Trump now. And, indeed, he wrote an essay for The Free Press using the same kind of structure as the piece that formed the basis of my 2022 post: Bill Barr: The Truth About the Trump Indictment. Here’s how he starts:
He’s the victim. Since President Trump was indicted in Florida last week, those of us who read and listen to conservative media have heard that singular message. The longer version goes like this: he’s the victim of a political witch hunt being carried out by the deep state during a presidential campaign in order to take out the Republican front-runner.
If anyone is sympathetic to this kind of logic, it’s me.
Trump has been the victim of witch hunts by obsessive enemies willing to do anything to bring him down. On those occasions—most prominently Russiagate, and more recently the civil and criminal actions against him in New York—I have never shied away from defending him. As his attorney general, I witnessed firsthand the unfair and venomous treatment he, and those in his administration, often received.
It is also true, as I know well, that Trump is a deeply flawed, incorrigible man who frequently brings calamity on himself and the country through his dishonesty and self-destructive recklessness. Even his supporters, who can’t help but acknowledge that he is own worst enemy, know it.
The need to make excuses and validate Trump’s narrative of injustice just underscores that while Barr wants to pretend like he is a truthteller about Trump, the reality remains that he still wants to maintain a level of defense of his former boss.
Plus, how many columns can he write wherein he admits that Trump is a “deeply flawed, incorrigible man who frequently brings calamity on himself and the country through his dishonesty and self-destructive recklessness” or, as he did in 2022, “he was grossly self-centered, lacked self-control, and almost always took his natural pugnacity too far” yet still feel the need to defend him in any way?
Fundamentally, Barr knows full well that Trump shouldn’t be president again, but not enough to do more than give a weirdly measured critique.
For the sake of the country, our party, and a basic respect for the truth, it is time that Republicans come to grips with the hard truths about President Trump’s conduct and its implications. Chief among them: Trump’s indictment is not the result of unfair government persecution. This is a situation entirely of his own making. The effort to present Trump as a victim in the Mar-a-Lago document affair is cynical political propaganda.
Well, indeed. How about leading with that, rather than first asserting that other investigations were, in fact, “witch hunts”? Why not just stop the weird need to say some ultimately irrelevant positives when there are manifestly more important negatives that need to be shared?
His piece does a good job, for example, of detailing the problems with Trump’s behavior.
All the razzle-dazzle about Trump’s supposed rights under the Presidential Records Act is a sideshow. At its core, this is an obstruction case. Trump would not have been indicted just for taking the documents in the first place. Nor would he have been indicted even if he delayed returning them for a period while arguing about it.
What got Trump criminally charged was his deceit and obstruction in responding to the grand jury subpoena served in May 2022 after he had stymied the government for a year.
That subpoena sought all documents in Trump’s possession that were marked as classified. If Trump truly thought he had a solid basis for keeping those documents, there were easy and obvious ways he could have lawfully raised those arguments at the time. Among other things, he could have taken legal action to quash the subpoena or have a court declare his right to keep them.
He did not do any of that.
But the pivotal fact—and what ultimately led the DOJ to charge Trump—was the department’s conclusion that Trump personally engaged in an outrageous course of deception to obstruct the grand jury’s inquiry. The indictment alleges in great detail that (1) Trump led his lawyer to believe that he would be allowed to conduct a complete search of all the boxes that could contain the relevant documents; (2) Trump then arranged, without the lawyer’s knowledge, for a large number of the relevant boxes to be removed from the room to be searched, thus preventing a complete search; and (3) Trump then caused his attorney to file a false statement with the court saying he conducted a complete search.
If true—and many key facts come from Trump’s own lawyer—this was brazen criminal conduct that cannot be justified in any way.
Ok, very much to the point. But then we pivot to this:
Sensible Republicans don’t even try to defend Trump’s behavior. Instead, they point to the flagrant “double standard,” arguing that it’s unfair to charge Trump when Hillary Clinton got away scot-free during the Obama administration for comparable behavior.
I believe there is a double standard. And I have spoken out repeatedly about it when I was attorney general and since.
I think the DOJ sometimes pursues alleged wrongdoing by Republicans with far more gusto than it does when the allegations implicate Democrats. I also agree the differential treatment of Hillary Clinton is a good example of this. During the Obama administration, the DOJ conducted a grossly inadequate investigation of Clinton’s use of a private email server and the intentional destruction of that server before the department had a sufficient chance to review it. This deficient investigation, coupled with sweeping grants of immunity to the key people involved, made it impossible later to impose appropriate accountability on those responsible.
I mean, all this does is undercut the other stuff. It gives Trump supporters (and even the supporter-curious) a place to hang their hats. Again, if Trump is as bad as Barr himself says he is, maybe we don’t need yet another round of “her emails!”
He concludes with the following.
Whenever defending Trump is concerned, it is always prudent not to get too far out on a limb until the facts are known. It would be wise to consider that the DOJ has held back a lot of information, and it will be coming out in the weeks ahead. But what we already know about Trump’s behavior is indefensible.
Well, except in the ways in which Barr feels the need to defend him, of course.
Is it too much to ask for Barr to be more direct and forceful? To ditch the weird need to say “Well, he was pretty good, too?”/leave doors open for defenders to walk through?
And yes, I fully well know the answer.