On our contemporary scale of political and human depravity, William “Bill” Barr must be ranked as preferable to such bottom-feeders as that architect of revolution and anarchy, Steve Bannon; disgraced conspiracy monger Alex Jones and his proliferating progeny; racist “presidential advisor” Stephen Miller; veteran con-man and Trump buddy Roger Stone; and military-intelligence expert gone-bonkers, disgraced general Mike Flynn—to say nothing of Rudy Giuliani, John Eastman, Sidney Powell, Jeffrey Clark, Mike (“My Pillow”) Lindell, and all those other unhinged 2020 and 2022 election deniers, including, most recently, the articulate but odious Kari Lake. These crackpots, fanatically devoted to the moral slag heap they worship, have, like Trump himself, bamboozled the MAGA base and brought this nation to the brink of civil war—an internecine conflict test-run on January 6, another before-our-eyes event denied or explained away by Trump and his cowed, crazed, or power-hungry enablers.
Near the top of that Dishonor Roll is former Chief-of-Staff Mark Meadows, smarter (who isn’t?) than groveling Kevin McCarthy, but no less spineless a Trump suppliant. But to prefer Bill Barr to such creatures as these is to damn with exceedingly faint praise. Barr’s gradual distancing of himself from Trump has now evolved into an explicit if hedged renunciation. We can welcome his better-late-than- never conversion, first trotted out in his almost 600-page self-serving 2022 memoir, One Damn Thing After Another.
That conversion, accompanied by a celebration of Trump’s accomplishments, was repeated in the online “guest post” afforded him by Bari Weiss on November 21, 2022, in which Barr theatrically informed the already-informed that “Trump Will Burn Down the GOP,” and that it is therefore “Time for New Leadership.” Of course, even amid his self-preening turn from Trump, Barr continues to flaunt his powers of discernment in recognizing from the outset Trump’s weaknesses as well as his strengths. He also continues to relentlessly beat the same old ideological drums.
He was, Barr assures us, even as early as the 2016 primaries, aware of Trump’s flaws. As keen-eyed as Sherlock Holmes, he perceived that Trump was “grossly self-centered, lacked self-control, and almost always took his natural pugnacity too far.” No kidding! Though the candidate could be “compelling,” Barr, an unexpectedly sensitive soul, found himself “cringing” at Trump’s “frequently juvenile, bombastic, and petulant style.” When he wasn’t cringing, Barr was appreciating. He was impressed in particular by his egocentric hero’s willingness to stand alone, speaking truth to power with courage and, mirabile dictu
, with clarity: “I liked the clear and direct way he staked out a position and his willingness to state unpleasant truths that many were afraid to say.” Despite his admiration of Trumpian clarity, Barr, in this
sentence, tumbles into the stylistic simplicity and infelicity we more typically associate with Donald Trump himself.
Barr was also attracted by Trump’s taking on of “difficult issues other politicians dodged.” Not such trivia as, say, persistent economic inequity, the rise of hate crimes and mass shootings, the growing power and audacity of white supremacist extremism, or the human and environmental challenges presented by now undeniable global climate change. Trump’s difficult issues were more Mammon-centered: “unfair trade deals, or our allies’ paltry defense spending.” That Barr’s litany of ailments was constructed retrospectively is confirmed by his next sentence, which distills the entire resentment-fueled pseudo-populist Trumpist agenda, distortions included:
Above all, Trump had accurately diagnosed, and given voice to, the deep frustration of many middle-class and working-class Americans who were fed up with the excesses of progressive Democrats; the shameless partisanship of the mainstream media; and the smug condescension of elites who had mismanaged the country, sold them out, and appeared content to preside over the decline of America.
There is, of course, some truth in this diagnosis, perception of which is hardly restricted to right-wing ideologues. But when it comes to identifying the causes of the malaise, objectivity swiftly yields to precisely that right-wing ideology. Not Sean Hannity, not even the currently dominant Fox bloviator, Tucker Carlson, could have said all this better—even if they did
say it earlier, including the lib-owning bashing of smug “elites” and the implication that these sinister, covertly Marxian sophisticates actually desire
, and are conspiring to bring about, the decline of America. We might be listening to Trump himself, during one of his innumerable and repetitive rallies,
There is much more in this line, partially justified praise of some Trump policies, but always undermined by exaggeration. It is hard to know when Barr is honestly praising accomplishments he agrees with, and when he is simply rationalizing the sustained period in which he, like so many others, continued to slavishly carry water for this profoundly corrupt and corrupting man.
But the time had come in Barr’s screed to make the case regarding what was required to assure a desperately needed GOP victory in 2024. And that meant parting with the Dear Leader, who, “it is now clear,” lacks “the qualities essential to achieving the kind of unity and broad election victory in 2024 so necessary if we are to right our listing republic.” Years of incessant lying, outrageous political and personal behavior, and Trump’s trampling of institutional norms, culminating in his election-defeat denial and subsequent incitement of a violent insurrection targeting his own nation’s Capitol, were not enough. It became “now clear
” that Trump was unfit for leadership only when most of his personally endorsed Congressional and Senatorial candidates, election deniers all, were defeated in the 2022 mid-terms. Donald Trump had emerged, it was “now clear,” as the very thing he most dreaded and Republicans least needed: a proven Loser.
For years, Trump’s excesses were overlooked or applauded by supporters who, Barr notes, “wanted a disrupter. His voters felt that the left was taking a wrecking ball to the country, and they wanted to strike back with their own.” But post-election Trump continued to swing that wrecking ball—so erratically and petulantly as his legal troubles mounted that his antics became less diverting than detrimental to the Party. In the end, the decision by Barr (preceded by Rupert Murdoch) to abandon an already sinking ship had nothing to do with common decency, morality, or revulsion from attempted sedition, and everything to do with the erosion of Trump’s political power—except among the often deluded diehards of his base, whose fierce loyalty had always been more visceral than rational. But, finally, enough was enough; at least for Citizen Barr.II
What are we to make of William Barr, of his initial and momentous subservience to Donald Trump, followed by this seemingly abrupt yet pathetically belated about-turn? Barr’s is a particularly egregious example of what the James Joyce of Dubliners
would call “a painful case.” Unlike most or at least many of the denizens of Trump-world, Barr has genuine talent. It was, to be sure, talent he corruptly abused from the outset; and, as Shakespeare reminds us in the great sonnet pivoting on the split couplet, flower/power
, sweetest things, if they meet with “base infection,” turn “sourest by their deeds; /Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.” And, prior to his belated recognition of what was obvious from the outset (namely, Trump’s malignant narcissism and megalomania), what were Barr’s signal “deeds”?
We have to back up for a moment in order to provide some context. Bill Barr was a relatively respected former Attorney General under George H. W. Bush. His re-emergence on the legal and political stage began with an unsolicited secret memo he sent in June 2017 to the Justice Department. Given that it was a written
document, Barr would have known that, while his memo wouldn’t be perused directly by the intellectually incurious and semi-literate President, its welcome message would certainly reach him through associates, who would spoon-feed it to him in digestible portions. Anything but an example of disinterested constitutional musing, Barr’s unsolicited memo, it seems reasonable to assume, was intended as an audition, a calculated, shameless exercise in brownnosing outreach. He was offering himself as just the right—because a dependable
—substitute to replace, as Trump’s Attorney General, the previously suppliant Jeff Sessions, an early and obsequious loyalist who had incurred Trump’s visceral hatred by unexpectedly recusing himself from the Russia investigation. Alas, Barr’s epistolary job application was successful.
In his memo, aside from extolling the virtues of a supposedly constitutional—but, in fact, radically maximalist—concept of executive power, Barr, advancing a narrow and highly debatable definition of obstruction of justice, argued that Trump could not have committed obstruction unless he had also been proven to have committed the underlying crime—collusion with the Russians. Absent that definitive proof, Barr, fusing hubris with realpolitik,
preemptively pronounced the entire Mueller investigation, root and branch, a failed, perhaps illegitimate probe.
More importantly, and far more despicably, he doubled down once the completed Mueller Report was put, exclusively, in his hands. Barr’s most salient exercise of abject subservience as Trump’s new AG was to, once again, preempt and, this time around, to knowing
ly distort the findings of “The Full Report on Donald Trump, Collusion, and the Russian Interference in the  Presidential Election.” He did so in an April 18, 2019 press conference in which he brazenly redacted, before its release to the public the following day, the Mueller team’s meticulously detailed account of their two-year-long investigation. Whatever we make of his self-serving and openly partisan second thoughts about Donald Trump, Bill Barr’s deliberate misrepresentation of the actual conclusions of the Mueller Report was, and to my mind remained, his defining and damning legacy.
That is, until (as noted in the coda to this essay), Barr outdid himself by exceeding his misrepresentation of the Mueller Report by launching, and repeatedly and corruptly insinuating himself into, a politically biased counter-investigation of the origins of the Mueller probe, led by Barr’s handpicked special counsel, federal prosecutor John Durham. Once again, as was thoroughly exposed by New York Times
investigative reporters in late January 2023, Barr was trying to rewrite history in Trump’s favor.III
The Mueller team had focused on any “links or coordination” between the Russian government and individuals associated with the Trump campaign, including the President himself. As the Mueller team demonstrated, the links were strong. Trump had, after all, lied repeatedly about the Trump Tower project in Moscow, publicly invited the Russians to release whatever emails of Hillary Clinton they had hacked, and later in Helsinki, standing at the podium with Vladimir Putin, contradicted his own solicitation of Russian-hacked Hillary emails by taking, hat in hand and at face value, the Russian dictator’s “strongly” worded denial that he had ever intruded in our election. In that humiliating performance before the world, Trump was simultaneously ignoring the overt Russian preference for himself, a fawning Vlad fanboy, over harsh Putin critic, Hillary Clinton, and cavalierly and cravenly dismissing the abundant evidence of Russian interference accumulated by U.S. intelligence agencies.
As we know, there were flaws in the investigation, notably those involving FISA warrants: FBI mishandlings exploited by Trump supporters eager to discredit the entire probe. But there was a deeper, self-inflicted wound. The Mueller investigation had handicapped itself from the beginning by unwisely accepting as binding a DOJ guideline against indicting a sitting president; and the Report confined itself to accumulating rather than interpreting, let alone “spinning” the evidence. Nevertheless, that Report, filling two substantial volumes, amassed significant evidence of hacking and dumping of data from DNC computers by Russian military (GRU) officers, along with repeated Trump campaign contacts with the Russians, especially by Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort, both later indicted and convicted. And eventually pardoned by Trump.
Trump himself, despite his passive-aggressive posturing as an innocent victim, his boasting about total vindication, and the alleged exposure, as a “hoax” and partisan “witch hunt,” of the “collusion delusion,” was NOT exonerated by the Mueller Report. In addition to detailing the links between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, the investigators concluded that there was a “sufficient factual and legal basis” for Congress to “further investigate” potential obstruction–of-justice issues involving the President: a characteristically modest summation, considering the compelling evidence of presidential acts of obstruction laid out in the Executive Summary to the second volume of the Report (II.3-8).
The “Conclusion” capping that Executive Summary reveals the emasculating effect of a meticulous but arguably overly scrupulous interpretation of the word “coordination,” and, above all, the predictable non-consequences of the fatal upfront decision to decline to indict a sitting president on the basis, not of law, but of a mere DOJ guideline. To quote the Conclusion:
Because we determined not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgment, we did not draw ultimate conclusions about the President’s conduct. The evidence we obtained about the President’s actions and intent presents difficult issues that would need to be resolved if we were making a traditional prosecutorial judgment. At the same time, if we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, we are unable to reach that judgment. Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.
The inadvertent effect of this mealy-mouthed paragraph was to conclude an exhaustive investigation as anticlimactically as possible; to end not with a bang, but a whimper. But for all its waffling, it is still a far cry from Barr’s partisan and brilliantly effective if utterly immoral preemptive strike. His redacted version was not only reductive but patently untrue.
When he strutted on stage on the morning of April 18, 2019, Barr was speaking to reporters, none of whom had yet seen the unreleased full Report, hundreds of pages of text and appendices, which he distilled to two words, clearly intended to provide a red-meat pro-Trump headline: “No Collusion.”
With Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein, who had some credibility with Trump critics (he had dissented from Barr’s 2017 secret memo), standing mutely beside him, Barr went on to swiftly dismiss any vestige of presidential “obstruction.” On the contrary, he lavished praise on the President for providing “unfettered access” to documents, and presiding over a White House that “fully cooperated” with every aspect of the investigation. Needless to say, Barr in his highly selective summation ignored the Report’s many instances of apparent obstruction. Nor did he comment on Trump’s sustained refusal to appear before the Mueller investigators, capped by a plethora of evasions and repeated failures of memory (“I have no recollection…I do not remember….I do not recall…”) when, in late November 2018, he finally did (non-responsively) respond to a series of “written questions to be answered under oath.”
None of it mattered. Thanks to the Attorney’s General’s preemptive torpedo, the Report, even for many harboring no doubt that Trump had invited and benefited from Russian interference, was dead on arrival. In effect, Barr succeeded in strangling the allegedly deformed infant in its cradle. An atypically outraged Robert Mueller publicly and accurately protested that his former friend had distorted the nuanced findings of the actual Report. But it was too late; the damage had been done, with Barr’s cynical misrepresentation providing the template for a gloating Trump’s subsequent and incessant mantra of victimhood and vindication. Sadly, when Robert Mueller reluctantly appeared in person before Congress, this former war hero and distinguished public servant was clearly in decline, a shadow of his former self.
For the mesmerized idolators populating MAGA-world, for virtually all Republicans, and even for many average Americans, who prefer synopses to lengthy and complex texts, both the first and the final word—the requiem—on the Mueller Report was Barr’s cynical and dishonest dismissal. One reporter at that sordid presser had the temerity to ask if it might not constitute “an impropriety for you,” the Attorney General, “to come out and sort of spin the report before people are able to read it?” Barr deadpanned a surly “NO,” turned, and strode off the stage.IV
That word and that arrogant gesture say all that needs to be said about Bill Barr. But in the November 2022 online post, as in his lengthy memoir, we are warned by this smug, sanctimonious enabler that, while President Trump’s “basic policy judgments were sound,” and that, in both domestic and foreign policy, this courageous man spoke “truths that many were afraid to say,” Trump was and is (imagine that!) guilty of “supreme narcissism,” a man consumed by his own selfish interests rather than advancing those of his wonderful Party.
We are also informed in this online post that “the defining feature of our political landscape continues to be the sharp leftward turn of the Democratic party.” Many have been critical of the excesses of the progressive left, not least honest observers, themselves liberals and often progressives, who see many of the more flamboyant expressions of “woke” ideology, hyper-sensitivity in racial and gender issues, identity politics, and cancel culture, as not only intrinsically wrongheaded, but politically counterproductive, providing ammunition to an enemy far more ideologically extreme than those they condemn and often caricature.
There are examples aplenty, political and linguistic, of progressive excesses, but to accept the singling out of the Democrats’ “sharp leftward turn” as our political landscape’s “defining feature” is to endorse amnesia. Barr seems to have conveniently forgotten that the sharp “rightward”
turn incited and fueled by the supreme narcissist he helped remain in power (a radical “turn” cravenly acquiesced in by the pathetic party Barr still wholeheartedly supports) led directly to a violent insurrection intended to disrupt and subvert the very electoral system on which our indispensable but fragile democracy rests. One could be excused for imagining that a man trained in the law and who had twice served as Attorney General of the United States might judge a massive, violent assault on the Capitol, initiated by the President himself, as an even more “defining feature” of current politics than the opposing party’s “leftward turn.”
Donald Trump and those who continue to support him, especially those who join him in his demagogic, deranged, and increasingly dangerous pursuit of power, are, arguably, as guilty as he is of treachery, if not outright treason. But Bill Barr is not on board when it comes to that notion. The only “treachery” he attributes to Trump has to do with his role in losing Republican votes. In his November 2022 post Barr limits Trump’s “treachery” to his “sabotaging the GOP effort to hold the Georgia Senate seats.”
Similarly, though he refers at one point to “authoritarianism,” Barr is not thinking of Donald Trump, the bloated embodiment of authoritarianism in today’s America, but of that excess on the despised “left.” He calls for a revival of something like the old Reagan coalition of Republican-leaning educated suburbanites, culturally conservative working-class voters, and even some classical liberals, all said to be “repulsed by the left’s authoritarianism.” While there is certainly a culturally dictatorial tendency on the extreme left, even elements of left-wing semi-fascism, in strength and malign influence it pales in comparison to the far more vigorous and vicious authoritarianism admired and epitomized by Donald Trump.
Along with an ever-increasing number of others who have suddenly seen the light (far too little light and far too late), Bill Barr wants to “move on” from the eccentricities of Trump. But like virtually all Republicans—with the honorable exception of that saving remnant that risked their careers, their safety, and at times their lives, to stand proud as Never Trumpers—Barr has rejected Trump, not on moral or even principled legal grounds, but solely in order to re-embrace the conservative ideology—venerable to some, sclerotic to others—of the Grand Old Party, and to enhance (apparently all that matters) GOP chances of winning in 2024.
While he should never be let off the hook for his preemptive and calculated deathblow dismissal of the full case set forth in the Mueller Report, Barr is to be applauded for one positive
act of dismissal: his blunt rejection of Trump’s Big Lie claiming widespread voter fraud. Under oath, Barr told the January 6 Committee questioners that Trump’s claim, no matter how often repeated, was “bullshit.” That almost
seems redemptive. But not quite. Having sold his soul for a mess of Trumpage and to bolster his own right-wing priorities, Barr now wants that bartered-away soul back, belatedly renouncing Trump in a bid for redemption unburdened by the plebeian pieties of repentance.VCoda (February 9, 2023)
As noted at the end of section II of the present essay, investigative reporting by the New York Times
in January 2023 exposed staggering and irrefutable evidence of the full extent of William Barr’s corruption. In the spring of 2019, Barr appointed a special counsel to head up a purportedly objective probe into the origins of the Mueller investigation. He hand-picked a supposedly fair-minded man, Connecticut federal prosecutor, John Durham. As it turned out, Durham, who just happens to share Barr’s arch-conservative Catholic perspective on matters political and religious, engaged from the outset as a willing participant in Barr’s partisan project: to expose as “bogus” the whole “Russiagate” investigation, and the Mueller team’s “mendacious and fraudulent attempt to invalidate the legitimate election of a president.”
Since I am quoting from Barr’s 2022 memoir, that last phrase was written (with a brazenly straight face) after
January 6, 2021, when an “attempt” (and a violent one at that) actually was
made “to invalidate the legitimate election of a president,” Joe Biden, not Donald Trump. In his videotaped testimony before the January 6 Committee, Barr had gone suddenly full-bore sane. He rejected, as baseless “bullshit,” Trump’s election fraud claims, and characterized the President, misled by “sycophants” and “whackos,” as himself “detached from reality.”
That was then
; but during the whole of the sustained Durham investigation, Barr, a man for all seasons in the most chameleon sense, had not only violated his commitment as Attorney General to distance himself from the work of the special counsel; he had met frequently with Durham, sipping scotch with him at Washington dinners, and travelling with him to Great Britain and Italy, infuriating officials in both governments by pressuring them to reveal what they had supposedly told the Mueller team—all in an attempt to invalidate the Russia investigation and vindicate Trump. To their great disappointment, and to that of The Donald, who had been characteristically promising wondrous revelations to his supporters, they came up empty.
In fact, instead of evidence proving anti-Trump bias on the part of U.S. intelligence agencies, or exposing “dirty tricks” by the Hillary Clinton campaign, the Durham team uncovered, in Italy, evidence linking possible financial crimes to—Trump! Barr never informed investigators in his department of this development, leaving it up to Durham, who “investigated” in secret, but filed no charges. When word leaked that a criminal probe had been launched, Durham left inquirers with the false impression that the suspected crime was related to the original investigation. Barr said nothing to correct the record. That was predictable; he had already reprised his original derailing of the Mueller Report in that April 2019 press conference by getting out in front of and spinning the about-to-be released DOJ inspector general’s report by publicly disagreeing with its conclusion: that the Mueller probe was “legitimate” and not
Despite his belated and desperate attempt to regain respectability, William Barr does not deserve a second chance. In corrupt servitude to a corrupt President, he undermined U.S. intelligence agencies, smeared and misrepresented legitimate investigations, and damaged his own Department of Justice. Whatever the flaws in their investigations, those who looked into the abundant evidence linking the Trump campaign with Russian officials were doing their jobs to protect American national security. As concluded in the DOJ inspector general’s report, disputed but implicitly confirmed by the futile efforts of Barr and Durham to prove otherwise, Mueller’s investigators were not politically-motivated agents of Hillary Clinton or of the “deep state” relentlessly invoked by MAGA cultists and conspiracy mongers—now elevated to power in the new Congress, some of the most extreme chairing fresh rounds of GOP investigations.
No doubt cognizant of lunatic loyalist Rudy Giuliani’s descent into bathos and reputed bankruptcy, Barr, trying to salvage what’s left of his reputation, now criticizes Trump as temperamentally unfit for office and advises Republicans to look elsewhere for 2024. But when he was in a position to actually matter, Barr consistently celebrated this reprobate as a great leader—politically, militarily, and, remarkably enough, morally
. Those lacking Barr’s profound understanding of the man may see in Trump a genital-grabbing congenital liar and insurrectionist demagogue. But hold on. As that devout Catholic Bill Barr unctuously intoned in his memoir, Donald Trump “has a deep intuitive appreciation of the importance of religion to the health of our nation.” What Trump, a thoroughly secular con-man, actually has is a deep appreciation of the ways in which he could and did manipulate, bamboozle, and exploit great numbers of evangelical and other gullible Christians to his political advantage.
Trump is morally and, one hopes, politically unsalvageable, as is Barr. On January 30, 2023, New York Times
editorial board member David Firestone summed up the detailed Times
analysis of the Barr-initiated, engineered, and corruptly-supported Durham investigation. Firestone’s admirably succinct headline says it all: “Bill Barr’s Image Rehab is Kaput.”