Yes, Barr Misled the Public

The attorney general hasn't said a single thing that wasn't technically true about the Mueller report. But he was dishonest.

Five weeks ago, when Attorney General Barr released his four-page summary of the Mueller report, I declared, “I’m confident that Mueller and his team did their job and I have no reason to think Barr and his team aren’t doing theirs.” Defending that statement in the comments section, I reasoned, “I think he values his legal reputation more than he covets Trump’s affections” and “it would be a short-lived win in that the full report will get out soon.”

A few days later, when members of Mueller’s team complained that Barr’s summary understated their findings, I doubled down, “Given that something approximating the full report will be not only shared with Congress but made public quite soon, I have operated under the assumption that Barr’s summary was accurate as to the legal findings but shaded in terms of the political implications. I still think this is correct.”

My faith in Barr was misplaced. He did, in fact, place his loyalty to Trump over his duties to the country, the reputation of his Department, and his personal integrity.

I take some comfort in being in good company.

Lawfare’s Ben Wittes:

“I was willing to give Bill Barr a chance. Consider me burned.”

The subhead of his essay declares “The attorney general misled the public in seven key ways.”

Not in my memory has a sitting attorney general more diminished the credibility of his department on any subject. It is a kind of trope of political opposition in every administration that the attorney general—whoever he or she is—is politicizing the Justice Department and acting as a defense lawyer for the president. In this case it is true.

Barr has consistently sought to spin his department’s work in a highly political fashion, and he has done so to cast the president’s conduct in the most favorable possible light. Trump serially complained that Jeff Sessions didn’t act to “protect” him. Matthew Whitaker never had the stature or internal clout to do so effectively. In Barr, Trump has found his man.

The Atlantic, “The Catastrophic Performance of Bill Barr”

As I’ve noted before, Wittes is perhaps the most cautious public intellectual I know of. It’s among the reasons I value his analysis so highly: he’s simply never ahead of his skies. But, of course, he’s occasionally late to the party. Our own Steven Taylor declared “It seems as if Donald Trump finally has the AG he has always wanted” nearly two weeks ago.

Still, Wittes’ analysis is devastating.

He begins with a concession:

Ironically, the redactions on the report—the matter on which I urged giving Barr the benefit of the doubt—are the one major area where his performance has been respectable. On this matter, he laid out a time frame for the release of the report. He met it. His redactions, as best as I can tell, were not unreasonable, though they were aggressive in some specific areas. To whatever extent he went overboard, Congress has a far-less-redacted version. The public, in any event, has access to a detailed account of Mueller’s conclusions. On this point, Barr did as he said he would.

Alas . . . .

Where Barr has utterly failed, by contrast, is in providing “honest leadership that insulates [the department] from the predations of the president.” I confess I am surprised by this. I have never known Barr well, but I thought better of him than that.

The core of the problem is not that Barr moved, as many people worried he would, to suppress the report; it is what he has said about it. I have spent a great deal of time with the Mueller report, about which Barr’s public statements are simply indefensible. The mischaracterizations began in his first letter. They got worse during his press conference the morning he released the document. And they grew worse still yesterday in his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Barr did not lie in any of these statements. He did not, as some people insist, commit perjury. I haven’t found a sentence he has written or said that cannot be defended as truthful on its own terms, if only in some literal sense. But it is possible to mislead without lying. One can be dishonest before Congress without perjury. And one can convey sweeping untruths without substantial factual misstatement. This is what Barr has been doing since that first letter. And it is utterly beneath the United States Department of Justice. [emphasis added — jhj]

There’s a whole lot more after that setup and I’ll leave it to those interested in the details to go to The Atlantic and read the whole thing.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, Russia Investigation, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Let me be the first to say, “I told you so.” 😉

  2. Teve says:

    the Friday after the Mueller report came out, on what I still think of as the MacNeil Lehrer NewsHour, David Brooks said “well he threw away whatever reputation he still had.”

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  3. Kylopod says:

    Well, James, we told you so. Here is what you wrote when the Barr “summary” that now even he admits wasn’t a summary first broke:

    “The reason I think this is likely an accurate but incomplete summary is that the truth will come out sooner rather than later. I’d be shocked if Barr stakes his reputation of a provable lie.”

    And here’s what I said to you in response:

    “In other words, you’d be shocked if Barr behaved exactly like all other Trump appointees have behaved…. There are, of course, several gray areas in which Barr could have avoided an outright, provable lie while still succeeding in the basic goal of covering up real crimes committed by Trump.”

    Are you ready to admit you were a bit hasty in trusting Barr?

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  4. Kathy says:

    “If we cannot lie, we must make the truth lie for us.”

    Isaac Asimov

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  5. Gustopher says:

    it would be a short-lived win in that the full report will get out soon.

    Was it a short-lived win?

    He blunted the full effect of the Mueller report findings, which are incredibly damning, and he has inserted himself as a story, further obscuring the report.

    Also, his testimony before the Senate went beyond misleading, into the territory of lying and perjury.

    He’s not throwing himself on his sword to protect Trump, but he is eating dog shit off the sidewalk to protect Trump. I don’t understand the loyalty towards Trump, when Trump shows no loyalty to others, but maybe this time it will turn out different.

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  6. Moosebreath says:

    While I respect Wittes, I think Barr has committed perjury at least with respect to his characterizations of Mueller’s responses to Barr’s summary, both in yesterday’s Senate testimony and in the earlier testimony before the House, where he said he did not know why the reports came out that Mueller’s staff was unhappy with his summary.

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  7. JKB says:

    That’s a sad revelation of someone in psychic distress. Well, it’s published now, time will sort it all out. But is very revealing of someone who viewed the Mueller investigation as a political investigation instead of being governed by criminal investigation standards and practices. Mueller’s letter, revealed yesterday, indicates that Mueller, or at least his acquiescing to his team, also tried to do political under the guise of criminal. Their problem with Barr seems to be that he isn’t one of the new, smear in the media, prosecutor-types.

    There is also a defensive side to the Dem/media attacks on Barr. He is in charge of the department that will be making the charging decisions on the various investigations into the FISA abuse, the origins of the Russia/Trump collusion hoax, perhaps even the wholesale unmasking by Obama officials, reporters bribing FBI agents for information, etc.

    On the upside, I think we are going to see the American institutions demonstrate their self-healing and resistance to long term corrupt actions by political actors. It’s 4 am, have you checked outside fo the FBI entry team?

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  8. Mister Bluster says:

    @Gustopher:..I don’t understand the loyalty towards Trump, when Trump shows no loyalty to others,..

    Republican Man is loyal to President Pud because he “grabs them by the pussy” and screws porn stars to commit adultery. They admire him for that and hope that they too will be able to participate
    in the same lecherous behavior.

  9. dmichael says:

    We live in a world where among old white guys, there is still what I call professional curtesy: the assumption that these men are fundamentally honest and have integrity. They work to maintain the dignity and respect of the office they hold. We hear talk among these old guys that people have a reputation to uphold without ever considering what actions they have taken in their public lives. William Barr was and is a partisan hack who specializes in coverups. I am not going to summarize the readily available history of this guy who worked in Republican administrations. You can look it up. Hint: Iran/Contra. Suffice it to say that he has, with his work on the Mueller report, confirmed the reputation he previously had (except among the old white guys and the MSM). Oh, James perhaps you may wish to consider Barr’s testimony in a congressional hearing where he said he was unaware of why there may be people on the Mueller team who were complaining about his four page “summary” of the report when Barr had by that time received Mueller’s letter to him that specified their complaints about his summary. I prefer the take of Jack Crosbie of Splinter which he applies to former Republicans, including Comey and Wittes: “Comey aghast that fellow white lawyer dudes turn out to be spineless hacks.”

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  10. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @JKB:

    But is very revealing of someone who viewed the Mueller investigation as a political investigation instead of being governed by criminal investigation standards and practices.

    WTF are you talking about, Willis?
    Baghdad Barr came out, mis-represented the report in order to “totally exonerate” his client…and you are accusing Mueller of being political?
    Oh look…a red-hatted loon sighting….

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  11. gVOR08 says:

    @dmichael: Comey’s column seems to have been very well received. I don’t see why.

    The column is about how Trump corrupts people, but as I commented on the column, Trump didn’t corrupt Barr, Barr arrived corrupt. I further noted that if Comey wished to understand the motives of people like Barr he should perhaps think back to his own feelings and motivations when he disobeyed DOJ policy to comment on the decision to decline to prosecute Hillary, and his follow up with Weiner’s laptop.

    I see that yesterday someone dug out William Safire’s comment on Barr from way back during Iran-Contra. Called him, “Coverup General Barr”.

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  12. michael reynolds says:

    @JKB is a liar, demonstrated many times. A person who lies while talking politics, and lies to advance an agenda, is of no value to anyone.

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  13. Jay L Gischer says:

    Well, assuming good faith until proven otherwise is more or less what I do in life, so I don’t fault you for that. Maybe I’m another one of those “old guys” who does this – I still think it’s a solid way to go, though I would emphasize that that approach should be extended to people of every stripe.

    Still, it’s good to see you change course.

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  14. Scott F. says:

    As I noted in the earlier Wittes post comment thread, how can this matter if not one Republican will stop defending Barr and stand against the mendacity?

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  15. Kylopod says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    Well, assuming good faith until proven otherwise is more or less what I do in life

    Shouldn’t that depend on the circumstances? Would you “assume good faith” from an article in the National Enquirer? I thought the Barr pseudo-summary was fishy from the get-go because (a) it fit the pattern in how other Trump officials have behaved throughout Trump’s presidency (b) Barr himself had a history of covering up for past presidents (c) he had already attacked the Mueller investigation in ways that suggested he was a Trump lackey before he even joined Trump’s team (d) the letter was filled with classic weasel-wording and selective quotations (the bracketed capitalization of a key sentence from the Mueller report should have been a big red flag).

    The fact that the media fell for this is what stunned me more than anything. And I fear that the damage is already done: the narrative has already set in that the Mueller report was a nothing-burger, and people are much less inclined to pay attention no matter what new revelations come out.

    Barr is far more in the mold of McConnell than Giuliani: utterly evil, but definitely not stupid. Gustopher says, “He’s not throwing himself on his sword to protect Trump, but he is eating dog shit off the sidewalk to protect Trump.” Since when was the latter a career-killer? It wasn’t for Divine.

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  16. An Interested Party says:

    There is also a defensive side to the Dem/media attacks on Barr. He is in charge of the department that will be making the charging decisions on the various investigations into the FISA abuse, the origins of the Russia/Trump collusion hoax, perhaps even the wholesale unmasking by Obama officials, reporters bribing FBI agents for information, etc.

    Thankfully, your fantasies never come true, so all those who were involved in supposed FISA “abuse” or the Russian/Trump collusion “hoax” as well as Obama officials, reporters, and FBI agents really have nothing at all to worry about…

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  17. gVOR08 says:

    @Gustopher:

    I don’t understand the loyalty towards Trump, when Trump shows no loyalty to others

    I commented a couple days ago that I don’t think Barr is loyal to Trump, Barr is loyal to a concept of a strong unitary executive, i.e. a dictator. Serendipitously, Michael Gerson published a similar thought today.

    Deep down — at their most honest and vulnerable — what demagogues really want is sycophants who act out of conviction. Is it too much to ask for servants who grovel because they really mean it?

    By this standard, President Trump must be a very happy man. In Attorney General William P. Barr, he has finally found someone who licks his boots out of principle.

    Barr was clearly chosen for his position because he genuinely believes in expansive executive authority.

    Gerson goes on at some length on Barr’s bizarre claim that a president can’t commit obstruction by firing a prosecutor if said prez believes himself innocent.

    Congress really needs to subpoena his arse to show up in front of Nadler.

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  18. Teve says:

    @An Interested Party:

    There is also a defensive side to the Dem/media attacks on Barr. He is in charge of the department that will be making the charging decisions on the various investigations into the FISA abuse, the origins of the Russia/Trump collusion hoax, perhaps even the wholesale unmasking by Obama officials, reporters bribing FBI agents for information, etc.

    When JFK Jr comes out of hiding and he and Trump kick down the door to the Pizza basement where all the child sex slaves are being held, and they citizen’s arrest Hillary and Obama and George Soros and the guy from Perfect Strangers who wasn’t Balki but the other one, and put them in Space Jail, the joke’s going to be on us!

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  19. wr says:

    @Kylopod: “Are you ready to admit you were a bit hasty in trusting Barr?”

    Isn’t that exactly what this entire post was about?

    Geeze, guys, “welcome home at last my brother” is a lot more appealing than “I told you so.”

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  20. JKB says:

    @michael reynolds: A person who lies while talking politics, and lies to advance an agenda, is of no value to anyone.

    Well, I am not a liar. However, that is the stupidest statement ever. Lying while talking politics and to advance an agenda is literally the stock and trade of almost everyone in the DC area. Not to mention state capitals and city halls.

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  21. Bruce Henry says:

    A person who repeats zombie lies and ridiculous propaganda is either a liar or a stupid stupid rube.

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  22. michael reynolds says:

    @JKB:
    Yes, you are a liar, a deliberate liar.

    And no, it’s not OK just because you think politicians lie. This is the thing you Trumpaloons don’t seem to understand about morality, ethics, simple human decency: just because you can point to some other person who behaved badly, that actually does not in any way excuse your own bad behavior.

    I realize that will come as a shock to you, but let’s see if I can dumb it down enough for you: two wrongs don’t make a right.

    You’re a liar and because you are unable to defend your position without resort to lies, you are proving that your positions are lies as well. See, if you lie to support your positions you demonstrate consciousness of guilt, you show that you know your positions are nothing but lies, otherwise you’d advance honest arguments. Right? Right. Or are you going to argue that among the many arguments you might advance there are truths and there are lies but you’ve chosen to discard the true arguments and choose the lies instead?

    The net result is that your only usefulness here is to present the latest lies. But hey, JKB, don’t bother, we already know your lies because we get them straight from your cult leader, your idol, the Liar in Chief. You’re just the pipe that delivers the sewage, but we’ve long since smelled what you have to offer.

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  23. Joe says:

    I understood Barr, both in his letter and his press conference, to say that Mueller’s report did not rely or turn on the DOJ’s position that a sitting President cannot be indicted. In fact, Mueller’s report is almost a pretzel because of that very position. How were Barr’s statements in that regard not a flat out lie?

    I am curious about the importance of “framing the argument.” It is disappointing, but not surprising, to me that someone like Barr can change the political reaction to something like the Mueller report by mischaracterizing and then slow-rolling the publication. We still have the redacted report now. Why can politics recover its reaction? (I understand that it doesn’t; it just bugs me that it doesn’t.)

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  24. gVOR08 says:

    Scott Lemieux over at LGM has a little different take on Wittes. Wittes gave Barr the benefit of the doubt, and by doing so enabled Barr’s deception. And now he’s been “let down by another Republican Daddy.”

    And yet in this meritocratic thing of ours announcing yourself as a sucker gives you more credibility than being right all along.

    Maybe we should give up on the ‘right for the wrong reasons’ thing and give the Dirty Fucking Hippies who recognized Barr as a partisan hack from the get go a little credit. Lefty bloggers are the only analysts you can trust. They don’t make enough money to lie.

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  25. al Ameda says:

    Barr was hired on the basis of his cover letter supporting the concept of the ‘unitary executive’ and the idea that a president (especially a Republican President) cannot be charged/indicted for alleged criminal activity.

    With this in mind, Barr has shown himself to be quite willing to diminish his professional reputation by selling out and providing Trump with cover and spin prior to any real public disclosure of the Mueller Report.

    Trump, as he has his entire life, skates. He’s fortunate that Republicans do not hold him to the same standard that they held Bill and Hillary to.

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