Last September, President Trump told an interviewer: “I don’t have an attorney general. It’s very sad.”
The problem was not that Jeff Sessions wasn’t showing up to work. It was that Sessions had recused himself from the Russia investigation and therefore couldn’t act to protect Trump by shutting it down.
Well, now Trump most certainly does have the attorney general he long envisioned. William P. Barr is making this abundantly clear, most recently in an interview aired Friday on Fox News.
But the thing is, now we don’t have an attorney general.
Barr has proved remarkably willing to spin, dissemble and advocate for the president in an ongoing performance more worthy of a spokesflack than the nation’s chief law enforcement officer.
But in this Fox News interview, Barr really pulled out all the stops.
Barr confirmed, as he has before, that he is investigating the investigators — that is, taking another look at the genesis of the investigation into Russia’s attack on the 2016 election and the Trump campaign’s possible complicity with it. This is, of course, exactly what Trump has demanded for years.
“I’ve been trying to get answers to the questions and I’ve found that a lot of the answers have been inadequate and some of the explanations I’ve gotten don’t hang together,” Barr said, stressing how important it is to know “whether government officials abused their power and put their thumb on the scale.”
This is more than just a declaration that the FBI launched an investigation of a foreign attack on our political system and possible coordination with it by Americans. It also subtly bolsters the idea that the FBI did this in a way that was designed to harm the Trump campaign.
Indeed, Barr openly validated Trump’s longtime claim that the whole FBI probe was a “witch hunt.”
“I think if I had been falsely accused, I would be comfortable saying it was a witch hunt,” Barr said.
This echoes Barr’s extraordinary news conference just before releasing the redacted Mueller report, at which he appealed to us to understand how victimized Trump felt by the Mueller investigation when considering his efforts to obstruct it.
Now Barr has gone all the way and validated the phrase “witch hunt.”
Perhaps most strikingly, Barr hinted darkly that Democrats should be worried about the outcome of his investigation of the investigators. Asked about Democratic charges that he’d previously misled Congress, Barr said:
“It’s a laughable charge, and I think it’s largely being made to try to discredit me, partly because they may be concerned about the outcome of a review of what happened during the election.”
Really? The attorney general of the United States is telegraphing that the conclusion of an unfinished investigation should be feared by one of two major political parties?
“I don’t think it’s appropriate for the attorney general to be casting DOJ actions in terms of whether they’re good or bad for one political party," Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, told us. “He’s implying that what’s going on behind the scenes at DOJ will be good for Republicans and bad for Democrats.”
“The special responsibility of the attorney general is that he’s charged with upholding all of our laws,” Vladeck continued. “The more it looks like partisanship is behind his actions, the more it’s understandable why public confidence in the Justice Department has waned.”
“What Barr should be doing right now is working to establish public credibility and faith in a nonpartisan Justice Department,” adds Susan Hennessey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
By the way, we know how the FBI investigation began — when Trump aide George Papadopoulos bragged to an Australian diplomat that Russia had dirt on Hillary Clinton and was giving it to the Trump campaign, and Australia informed the FBI.
As for the thumb being put on the scales against Trump, 11 days before the election, the director of the FBI publicly stated that the Democratic nominee was under renewed investigation. The investigation into the Trump campaign, on the other hand, was kept secret and did not affect the election.
What’s more, throughout the investigation, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III accused the president of precisely nothing. He made almost no public statements and allowed no leaks. Yet Barr claims that because Trump felt “falsely accused," it was appropriate for him to launch endless attacks on the very foundational legitimacy of the investigation, which Trump also tried to obstruct multiple times.
One last point about Barr’s embrace of the “witch hunt” idea. He’s flirting with the position of the president and his party that there should never have been any investigation in the first place. A “witch hunt” is an investigation that lacked any legitimate purpose from the get-go.
So despite the fact that Russia launched a “sweeping and systematic” effort to help Trump get elected; despite the between 100 and 250 contacts between Trump campaign figures and people associated with Russia; despite Trump World repeatedly signaling eagerness for the Kremlin’s help; despite that fact that everyone involved was constantly lying about contacts with Russia; despite the fact that Trump’s former campaign chair, former national security adviser and former personal lawyer would all go on to plead guilty to crimes — despite all that, Barr is still casting doubt on the investigation’s legitimacy.
Donald Trump now has an attorney general. But the United States no longer does.