Why did anybody ever trust William P. Barr?
The revelation that President Trump’s attorney general is exactly what President Trump always wanted in an attorney general appears to have rocked Washington. Barr has ruined his reputation, commentators are crying. He’s acting like the commander in chief’s defense counsel, not the country’s lawyer. It’s disgraceful. It’s embarrassing.
All true. But also all far from a shock — and yet, somehow, this has come as one anyway.
We knew Trump was looking for a top prosecutor who was loyal to him, and Barr volunteered for the position when the job description had practically been plastered on newspapers’ front pages for months.
We knew Barr had expressed skepticism of the investigation the president handpicked him to oversee. “Fatally misconceived,” he wrote of the special counsel’s obstruction inquiry in an unsolicited memo to the administration. Months earlier, he declared in The Post that the removal of FBI Director James B. Comey “simply has no relevance to the integrity of the Russia investigation as it moves ahead.”
But that was before he had been tasked with executing the laws of the land once again, supporters of Barr’s nomination argued, and he said in his hearing that a president tampering with a probe to further his personal interests would be an unacceptable abuse of power.
Barr released a shifty summary of Robert S. Mueller III’s report that answered a question no one asked him, but many insisted he wouldn’t dare mislead the public when the document’s author could call him out on it. He failed fully to answer the public and Congress’s many other questions, all the while slow-walking an unredacted release even when write-ups by investigators were available. But plenty of politicos still urged the impatient and upset to calm themselves.
The inexplicably stubborn illusion only faded, finally, after an appalling “news” conference, followed by the long-awaited publication of 400-some pages that contradicted the core of what Barr had been telling the country for weeks, followed by the revelation that Barr had misled legislators about Mueller’s discontent. The only thing Barr so far seems to have done right is what people were worried he would do wrong: keep his redactions reasonable, at least as far as we know.
Barr was, observers from left to center to slightly to the right acknowledged with a mixture of outrage and regret, a liar (or at least, according to the more delicate, a teller of falsehoods). And still, some insist, before we condemn Barr as no better than a charlatan undeserving of holding his office, we need Mueller’s take.
The persistence of this but-Barr-is-an-honorable-man sentiment harks back to the myth, toward the beginning of the Trump administration, of the “grownups in the room.” In those days, we wanted John Kelly, Rex Tillerson and the rest of them to be good guys in a bad situation because we hoped they could contain Trump. As it turned out, we were living in Neverland, and now that we know no one can contain Trump, we are hoping for someone, or something, to save us from him.
Trusting Barr meant trusting that, instead of knowing exactly what the president wanted and being prepared to give it, he was appalled by the corruption of our democracy and willing to sacrifice himself to preserve it. Trusting Barr meant trusting that Washington was a city of people of principle, rather than people who like power and will do whatever they can to hold on to it. It meant trusting that our institutions could withstand any outliers, or outright liars, who sought to destroy them.
This same trust in institutions tethered Mueller so tightly to rules and regulations that he let Barr beat him: giving the attorney general room to twist his findings and fighting back only with the force of a strongly worded, but private, letter.
Barr is an insider. He’s an éminence grise, according to the type of people who know what those words mean. He was part of Washington as it once was, when hobnobbing with top officials of an opposing administration was seen as slimy only by the most cynical because everyone was supposed to be, in the end, on the same team. People wanted to believe Barr because they wanted to believe something a lot bigger than him: that President Trump is the rot in our house — not that he has only pulled back the floorboards.