In less than 24 hours, William P. Barr will issue the special counsel report. His decisions about what to redact could be one of the most important calls from a U.S. attorney general in modern history. And the man making those calls once called special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s obstruction of justice investigation of President Trump “grossly irresponsible” and “fatally misconceived.”
We should defer final judgment on Barr’s handling of the matter until the report is out. But the fact remains that Trump has installed a well-professed skeptic of the Mueller probe to oversee its conclusion, and that skeptic is now making very important decisions about it.
He’s hardly the only person to say things Trump likes and then get installed in a position of power. This has become an increasingly conspicuous trend in Trump’s administration.
It’s not that unusual for a president to appoint people who agree with him. But in some cases, these people are being nominated to positions that are supposed to have some degree of assumed independence from the White House. And some of these people, such as Barr and the head of the Internal Revenue Service, could be making judgments with very personal implications for Trump.
In other cases, the people either pulled 180s on Trump, set aside their personal principles to cozy up to him or just seemed to be almost lobbying for jobs.
I wrote about some of these a couple weeks back. Below is a fuller list, with all the details:
1. Attorney General William P. Barr
What he said: In an unsolicited 20-page memo shared with the Justice Department and lots of people around Trump, Barr said Mueller’s obstruction probe was “premised on a novel and legally insupportable reading of the law. Moreover, in my view, if credited by the department, it would have grave consequences far beyond the immediate confines of this case and would do lasting damage to the presidency and to the administration of law within the executive branch.”
Barr had also criticized the Mueller team’s political donations and written an op-ed saying Trump’s firing of FBI Director James B. Comey was “the right call.”
Why it matters: After Mueller declined to accuse or exonerate Trump on obstruction, Barr took the controversial step of clearing Trump himself. His past commentary — including on Comey’s firing, which was perhaps the central event here — suggests Barr didn’t think there was much of a case in the first place. If there was one guy Trump might have picked to make such a call, Barr might have been him. And that’s ultimately what happened.
And now he’s in charge of redacting.
2. Former acting attorney general Matthew G. Whitaker
What he said: Barr’s predecessor, whom Trump selected to serve in an acting capacity after Jeff Sessions’s exit, also had a demonstrated history of criticizing Mueller’s probe — as a CNN pundit. He suggested that there was nothing amiss about the Trump Tower meeting. Whitaker mentioned a method by which an attorney general could try to defund Mueller’s probe. He wrote an op-ed saying “Mueller’s investigation of Trump is going too far.”
Why it matters: Sessions had recused himself from the Russia probe, which meant Trump was able to pick Whitaker as a temporary replacement. It may not have meant much, practically speaking, given that the big decisions have been handled by Barr. But the prospect was certainly there if things had wrapped up more quickly.
3. Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh
What he said: His previous legal commentary suggested quite a broad view of executive power. In one 1999 interview, he questioned the unanimous 1974 Supreme Court decision that led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation. Kavanaugh said it “took away the power of the president to control information in the executive branch by holding that the courts had power and jurisdiction to order the president to disclose information in response to a subpoena sought by a subordinate executive branch official.”
Why it matters: Trump has often pressed the bounds of his power as chief executive of the U.S. government. And now that Democrats control the House and the White House is resisting their requests for information, these matters are headed for the courts — and could eventually be decided by Kavanaugh and his eight colleagues.
4. Federal Reserve Board nominee Stephen Moore
Why it matters: Both are music to Trump’s ears. Trump has attacked Powell and suggested his interest rate hikes have hamstrung Trump’s economic progress. But presidents don’t generally weigh in on Fed matters as Trump has, and cutting interest rates as Moore suggests is not something with which most top economists are comfortable right now.
5. Federal Reserve Board nominee Herman Cain
What he said: After once hailing Powell’s rate hikes as “good news,” Cain recently pulled a 180 and expressed concern that they were overly aggressive.
Why it matters: See above. That politically convenient evolution, though, may not be enough to save his nomination. Four GOP senators have come out against Cain, who during the 2012 presidential campaign faced accusations of sexual harassment from multiple women, probably leaving him without the votes to be confirmed.
6. IRS Commissioner Charles P. Rettig
What he said: In a February 2016 Forbes op-ed, he said Trump shouldn’t turn over his tax returns. “Is there any legal impediment to Trump publicly releasing his tax returns? Absolutely not. Would any experienced tax lawyer representing Trump in an IRS audit advise him to publicly release his tax returns during the audit? Absolutely not.”
Why it matters: Trump has strongly resisted releasing those returns, but House Democrats are now citing an obscure law to force the IRS to hand them over. Trump also reportedly pushed for the Senate to confirm the IRS chief counsel in February, saying it should come even before Barr’s confirmation. So it seems Trump might have some interest in this particular issue and the people in charge of deciding it.
7. Chief economic adviser Larry Kudlow
What he said: After writing a 2015 op-ed with Moore in which the two of them suggested that Trump could be a “21st Century Protectionist Herbert Hoover” (and criticized his immigration policies), Kudlow, like Moore, softened his criticism of Trump and became an adviser. Even as Trump was pursuing the kind of trade wars Kudlow has up until recently despised, Kudlow took a job in the White House.
Why it matters: Fair play to Kudlow, but he is now helping sell and explain big policies he clearly opposed as a cable news talker.
8. U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer
What he said: When Trump was considering a presidential run in 2011, Lighthizer wrote a Washington Times op-ed declaring, “Donald Trump is no liberal on trade.” It reads like an audition for someone who wants to lead a trade war with China. “If Mr. Trump’s potential campaign does nothing more than force a real debate on those questions,” Lighthizer concludes, “it will have done a service to both the Republican Party and the country.”
Why it matters: Lighthizer is now leading the trade war and Trump’s efforts to undo and redo other trade deals.
9. National security adviser John Bolton
What he said: While other neoconservatives in 2016 resisted Trump’s professed noninterventionist foreign policy, the hawkish Bolton embraced Trump and his view of an ideological war with Islam. He wrote an August 2016 Wall Street Journal op-ed titled, “What Trump’s Foreign Policy Gets Right.”
Why it matters: Bolton couldn’t win confirmation as George W. Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations, but he has worked his way into Trump’s inner circle on foreign policy.
10. Former top strategist Stephen K. Bannon
What he said: The onetime top Trump campaign and White House strategist got on Trump’s radar by leading Breitbart’s often sycophantic and unyielding coverage of Trump. It began with a rare op-ed from Bannon himself in July 2015 hailing Trump’s new book as a “Blockbuster Policy Manifesto.” “Detailed, innovative, and smart, Time to Get Tough rivals all other GOP presidential candidates’ books in both specificity and serious policy proposals,” Bannon wrote. “It’s a book to be read by conservatives and feared by Trump’s detractors.”
Why it matters: If there is one person whose media maneuvers gave him a seat at the table with Trump, it might be Bannon. Breitbart essentially served as Bannon’s own personal campaign for the jobs he eventually got.
11. Legal adviser Joe DiGenova
What he said: As a pundit, the former U.S. attorney has predicted a criminal indictment for Hillary Clinton, suggested there was an “open revolt underway” inside the FBI against Comey and pushed the Susan E. Rice-unmasking story in conservative media. Mostly, though, he advocated the same kind of “deep state” conspiracies Trump has pushed.
Why it matters: He was announced as joining Trump’s legal team combating the Mueller probe, but he instead became an informal legal adviser.