When Donald Trump seemed to waver in late 2018 on nominating William P. Barr to be his attorney general, Barr had a private conversation with the president and told a story from his college days.
It’s a rare job interview in which the applicant tells a story about cold-cocking someone and still gets the job, but Barr did. Trump liked the story, Barr recounts in his autobiography, “One Damn Thing After Another: Memoirs of an Attorney General.”
Barr wasn’t sure if the point of his story — that sometimes it’s smarter to wait to respond to an attack — registered with the president. Left unaddressed is whether Trump may have received another message: Don’t mess with Bill Barr.
Modern American politics is driven less by what people believe than who they hate, and one of the quickest paths to fame and relevancy is to be despised by the other side. In this, Barr excelled: Democrats argued that he was Trump’s hatchet man, twisting justice to spare the president’s friends and punish his critics.
Barr was easily Trump’s most effective and important Cabinet member, and showed far more competence and cunning than Trump’s prior attorneys general, Jeff Sessions and the mercifully brief acting AG Matt Whitaker.
The title of Barr’s book is not, as one might suspect, a reference to its nearly 600-page length but comes rather from former attorney general Ed Levi’s description of the job. The first quarter of the narrative is a kind of prequel, describing Barr’s childhood, early legal career and first -stint as attorney general in the early 1990s under President George H.W. Bush.
Barr is an old-school conservative, raised on disgust with anti-Vietnam War hippies, contempt for the media he brands “corrupt” and blames for Bush’s 1992 loss, and a belief that religious life in America is under siege from liberals.
Initially a Jeb Bush supporter in 2016, Barr says he came to back Trump largely because of Trump’s likely picks for the Supreme Court. “On this basis alone,” he declares, “I would crawl over broken glass to the polls to vote for Trump.”
Barr can tell a good yarn and has a penchant for deadpan punchlines.
“Do you know what the secret is of a really good tweet? Just the right amount of crazy,” Trump told Barr at the end of one meeting.
The president, Barr writes, seemed to bond with him over their shared dislike of former FBI director James B. Comey, but Barr bristled when Trump talked ceaselessly about firing his handpicked replacement for the job, Christopher A. Wray.
Comey, who seemed to make bad judgment a personal brand in 2016, later became a source of friction between Trump and Barr when the attorney general refused to pursue a criminal case against the former FBI chief.
Barr’s account of Trump’s obsession with arresting his perceived political enemies is often told with a sense of humor that is more than a little unsettling, as if he is describing not the commander in chief but a cranky sitcom dad whose declarations prompt head shakes, eye rolls and a laugh track.
On Wray, the dispute was more stark. Barr thought he was a good FBI director, while Trump complained that Wray was not aggressive enough against his preferred targets.
One of the “pathologies of our age,” Barr writes, is that people “have come to think that, simply because circumstances suggest wrongdoing, some set of people should go to prison for a crime,” an idea he returns to later in the book, arguing: “Not all censurable conduct is criminal. The current tendency to conflate the foolish with the legally culpable causes more harm than good.”
Barr is right that the Justice Department has been weakened by constant public demands that this or that politician be arrested. Former prosecutor Rudy Giuliani hyped fantastical allegations of crimes and investigations against first Hillary Clinton, then Joe Biden. Over the two years of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation, liberal veterans of the Justice Department offered up daily speculation about the crimes Trump and his colleagues surely committed.
But the former attorney general conveniently ignores his own participation in this behavior of lending his law enforcement credentials to specious accusations against politicians he doesn’t like. It was Barr who said in 2017 that Clinton should be investigated criminally over a corporate deal called Uranium One, and it was Barr who publicly praised Comey’s decision to announce, just days before the 2016 election, that he was reopening the criminal investigation of Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of state.
In late 2020, Barr’s relationship with the president soured, as Trump complained that John Durham, the prosecutor tapped to investigate how U.S. agencies pursued allegations of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign in 2016, was not going to deliver big news before Election Day.
More critically, Barr writes, Trump and his legal team, including Barr’s nemesis, Giuliani, pushed absurd claims of mass voter fraud. “His legal team had a difficult case to make, and they made it as badly and unprofessionally as I could have imagined,” Barr writes. “It was all a grotesque embarrassment.”
Once again, Barr engaged in some of the same conduct he now decries. In September 2020, he grossly exaggerated the facts of a small fraudulent-ballot case in Texas, and a few weeks later he told Trump about a nascent investigation in Pennsylvania involving fewer than 10 ballots found in a trash can. The president immediately touted the Pennsylvania case as proof of pervasive fraud, but it turned out to be simple human error.
Trump’s legal efforts were a clown car of incompetence, but for a time Barr rode in that car. Before resigning in December 2020, Barr told the president in blunt terms that his mass-voter-fraud arguments were bunk.
By comparison, the chapters Barr devotes to more conventional issues like school vouchers come as a kind of relief, even if they often read as an airing of grievances for conservative lawyers — a Festivus for the Federalist Society. He also repeats his 2020 claim that some states’ coronavirus restrictions were “the most sweeping and onerous denial of civil liberties” since slavery — the kind of factually inebriated argument sure to infuriate historians of segregation or the World War II internment of Japanese Americans.
Barr earned the wrath of liberals and many current and former Justice Department officials for his handling of cases involving Mueller’s investigation of Trump, specifically two of the targets, Roger Stone and Michael Flynn, and the public release of Mueller’s final report.
Democratic lawmakers argued that Barr kneecapped his old friend Mueller and sabotaged the report by declaring that there was insufficient evidence to charge Trump with obstruction, thereby killing any possibility of Congress removing the president from office. Some of Barr’s strongest arguments in the book come when he pushes back against that idea, noting that Mueller’s own turn as, in essence, a hostile witness before Congress did more to undermine such an outcome than anything Barr did.
He is far less convincing when it comes to the handling of the Stone and Flynn cases, arguing that he publicly overruled the Stone prosecutors on a sentencing recommendation, and sought to scrap a guilty plea Flynn had already entered, in the greater interests of justice. If that was justice, it was of a kind unrecognizable to most federal prosecutors.
His book is not for those prosecutors, nor is it for those eager for shocking details about Trump’s conduct behind closed doors. Barr’s book is really a defense of his tenure to fellow conservatives — and a call to dump Trump in 2024.
Like that day in college so many years ago, Barr bided his time before taking one last swing. But as long as there are senior officials like Barr, there will be presidents like Trump.
Devlin Barrett writes about the FBI and the Justice Department for The Washington Post, and is the author of “October Surprise: How the FBI Tried to Save Itself and Crashed an Election.” He was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for national reporting, for coverage of Russian interference in the U.S. election.
One Damn Thing After Another
Memoirs of an Attorney General
By William P. Barr
William Morrow. 595 pp. $35