One of the most conspicuous through lines of the Trump presidency is his Cabinet officials adopting his controversial and often incorrect talking points. Whether by design or even just a subconscious desire to please the boss, they’ll often say things that allow President Trump to latch on to their words and mislead the country. It’s Cabinet officials wrongly saying the intelligence community concluded Russian interference didn’t impact the 2016 election. It’s his vice president and Homeland Security secretary wrongly saying that alleged terrorists have been apprehended at the border. And last week, it was his attorney general reinforcing the controversial Trump talking point that the U.S. government spied on his presidential campaign in 2016.
William P. Barr kind of, sort of walked back that claim later in his testimony before a congressional committee, and anonymous officials have claimed he wasn’t aware how charged his characterization was. But it’s now reached its predictable endpoint: Trump taking the already-suspect claim, stretching it beyond recognition and then even using it to raise money.
In at least two appeals in recent days, the Trump campaign has used Barr’s much-criticized comments to solicit donations. A text message spotlighted by The Washington Post’s Philip Bump on Friday claimed that “AG Barr believes the Obama Admin illegally spied on Pres Trump."
Then in a fundraising email this weekend, the campaign wrote, “Just this week, Attorney General William Barr said what the President has thought all along, he believes ‘unlawful spying did occur’ against Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign …”
Fundraising emails are where nuance goes to die. But even by the very low standards of these missives, these are ridiculously bad and wrong. For however much criticism Barr came in for last week, he never actually said he believed there was illegal spying on the Trump campaign. In fact, he made clear he didn’t know. The fact that he said “spying” was notable by itself, because of the disputed terminology, but he quickly clarified that there was no evidence it was improper.
“Yes, I think spying did occur,” Barr said, before adding: “But the question is whether it was predicated — adequately predicated. And I’m not suggesting it wasn’t adequately predicated. But I need to explore that. I think it’s my obligation.”
To say that “Barr believes the Obama Admin illegally spied on Pres Trump” or that Barr “believes ‘unlawful spying did occur’” is simply false — and egregiously so. He doesn’t appear to have ever uttered the quote attributed to him.
But this is how things work. Even when the officials around Trump are judicious with their words, they often tee up Trump to make these kinds of arguments. When announcing indictments of Russians last year, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein said, “There is no allegation in this indictment that any American had any knowledge” of the efforts. Trump and his team quickly seized upon this to argue that Rosenstein had effectively exonerated them of any wrongdoing, even though Rosenstein was only talking about what was alleged in this specific indictment.
Rosenstein isn’t totally responsible for Trump taking his words and distorting them, and neither is Barr. But public officials also need to recognize this Trump tendency. It’s surely possible to avoid leaning into one of his talking points or characterizing things in a way that could predictably lead to this outcome. The best policy is to be extremely careful with your words and emphasize what you’re not saying. Barr, to his credit, did the latter. To his detriment, he did not do the former.
And that’s the best explanation for Barr’s words — that he didn’t know how much he was injecting life into one of Trump’s favorite conspiracy theories. Whether or not that’s the case, it’s worth pointing out that he’s hardly the first to walk down this path. This keeps on happening over and over and over again, and nobody should be surprised — least of all someone of Barr’s intellect and experience.