James Comey, the former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, took to the New York Times opinion pages on Wednesday to examine why seemingly top-drawer people lose their principles, courage, bearings and voices once they enter President Donald Trump's orbit.
Comey published his column the same day Attorney General William Barr testified in the Senate about how he went about ingesting, publishing and spinning Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Russia report. Barr ran interference for Trump throughout the hearing and the president's apparent ability to co-opt Barr troubled Comey. The ex-FBI boss thinks Barr succumbed to Trump because the attorney general's moral backbone has gone missing.
"Accomplished people lacking inner strength can't resist the compromises necessary to survive Mr. Trump and that adds up to something they will never recover from," Comey wrote. "Mr. Trump eats your soul in small bites."
That's a fetching bit of analysis. But I think it's wrong, at least in Barr's case. He has all the inner strength he needs.
Consider the Senate hearing. Barr was hardly a hostage unshackled to do battle for his master. He absorbed and beat back questions for hours, his jaw set, his gaze defiant, his demeanor alternating from bored to condescending, and his responses weighted and phrased to indicate that his answers were the only correct answers. His tolerance for questions about his motives, methodology and integrity was limited. When members of the House of Representatives got ready for their turn to grill him on Thursday, Barr simply blew them off.
He's doing all of this, I suspect, because he believes in it (and because he came to the administration ready to do the handiwork that protected and enhanced the powers of the presidency). He has always favored an unfettered, imperial White House and has gone out of his way over the years to insulate the executive branch from prying eyes and congressional oversight.
Barr originally got an audition for the attorney general's job after openly taking pot shots at the bona fides of the Mueller investigation. I imagine his interview with the president about filling Jeff Sessions' shoes must have revolved around a willingness to go to bat for Trump. Barr knew what was expected of him, but he was already comfortably in his own philosophical zone. He proved it early on in his new job when he stood next to the Resolute desk in the Oval Office and told the world, on cue from Trump during a promotional stunt, that the president had the legal authority to declare an emergency on the U.S. southern border.
The roots of this run deep and pre-date Barr's arrival in Trump's White House. As Charlie Sykes noted in The Bulwark this week, Barr "has for 30 years been the go-to guy for protecting a president, covering up scandals, and obstructing investigations." The late Times columnist, William Safire, labeled Barr "General Coverup" in 1992 when, as George H.W. Bush's attorney general, he failed to appoint an independent counsel to closely examine funding for Iraq's then dictator, Saddam Hussein. Safire used the same label for Barr after he derailed an independent counsel's probe of the Iran-Contra scandal.
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Amid the recent controversy surrounding the Mueller report, Barr has proven adept at using the language of the law to present himself as an institutionalist mindful of process and an evidentiary approach. At the same time, he has ignored or misinterpreted evidence while running roughshod over process in an effort to control the narrative and public perceptions of the report.
Barr rushed to provide a summary of the Mueller probe when it landed on his desk in late March because, he claimed during Wednesday's hearing, the "body politic was in a high state of agitation." Perhaps. But his need for speed also allowed him to interpret a report that the general public had yet to see. Barr used that opportunity to actively misrepresent some of Mueller's findings. Click here for a comparison between what Mueller actually said in certain sections of his report and how Barr cherry-picked the phrasing to cast them in often inaccurate and more favorable light.
When Barr testified before House and Senate committees in early April he was in possession of a letter from Mueller complaining that his summary "did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance" of the special counsel's report. Barr didn't mention the letter or its observations during the hearings - even though one congressman specifically asked him if Mueller's team was concerned about the Barr summary.
Barr's effort to control the narrative - rather than act like a process-oriented lawman - reasserted itself two weeks ago when he released a redacted version of the Mueller report. Before doing so he held an odd press briefing in which he repeatedly landed on one of Trump's talking points ("No collusion!") and revisited his original summary of the report. (And Barr still hadn't disclosed the Mueller letter's existence or observations.)
The hearing on Wednesday was also loaded with misdirection and stage management rather than the close adherence to the law that Barr kept emphasizing as paramount. This rundown from Lawfare's Ben Wittes is a good, comprehensive overview of Barr's conduct from someone who has previously gone out of his way to support his approach. "Not in my memory has a sitting attorney general more diminished the credibility of his department on any subject," Wittes observes. "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 light."
Barr was astute enough to try to turn the table on arguments like this during the hearing itself, even though the facts still weigh against him. "Two years of his administration have been dominated by the allegations that have now been proven false," Barr said on Wednesday. "And, you know, to listen to some of the rhetoric, you would think that the Mueller report had found the opposite."
It's not true that all of the allegations leveled at Trump have been proven wrong. Possible obstruction of justice still looms large around all of this, for example. Barr no doubt knows this. But he's playing a longer game. He's in this to secure the priorities and the prerogatives of the executive branch, and that has nothing to do with the White House or Trump taking bites out of his soul. It's just who William Barr is, and always has been.