Dispatch April 1, 2019

Don’t Trust Bill Barr

Attorney General William Barr doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt. The problem isn’t simply that he still won’t commit to releasing the full Mueller report, or the many questions left unanswered by his four-page messaging letter.

The real, overlooked problem is Barr’s history of acting as a partisan operative to get Republican presidents out of sticky spots. Until he complies with Congress’s demands to release the full, unvarnished Mueller report, there is no reason to assume that this situation will be any different.

Barr’s reputation as a “Coverup-General” long predates his time in the Trump administration.

  • As Attorney General in the first Bush administration, Barr was a key player in putting the Iran-Contra investigation to bed. He signed off on pardons for key players who just happened to be members of the president’s inner circle, while obstructing efforts to create independent investigations into other Bush administration scandals.
  • Iran-Contra’s independent prosecutor, Lawrence Walsh, decried the decision, which he said “demonstrates that powerful people with powerful allies can commit serious crimes in high office, deliberately abusing the public trust without consequences.”
  • Barr’s willingness to put his reputation on the line to protect President George H.W. Bush led former Nixon speechwriter William Safire—no stranger to smoothing over presidential misconduct—to call Barr the “Cover-up General.”

Burying the Mueller investigation is exactly what Barr was appointed to do.

  • President Donald Trump spent almost two years attacking Jeff Sessions’s decision to recuse himself from overseeing the Russia investigation, going so far as to say he wouldn’t have appointed Sessions had he known Sessions wouldn’t be there to protect him from Mueller.
  • Trump’s ideal model for an attorney general? Roy Cohn, the former McCarthy aide who became infamous as a lawyer and fixer for his no-holds-barred defenses of his clients—including the Trumps. Cohn defended the father-son duo in 1973 after they were accused of systematically excluding black and Hispanic tenants from their housing projects. (The case was settled with no admission of guilt.)
  • When Trump finally forced Sessions out, he jumped the line of succession to install somebody in Cohn’s mold: Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker, whose main qualifications were his repeated criticism of the Mueller investigation and his reported belief that his job was to “jump on a grenade” to protect Trump.
  • When new AG Barr produced his letter, Trump praised his decision not to indict Trump for obstruction of justice, falsely claiming it amounted to “complete and total exoneration.”

Barr has proved a Trump loyalist since taking office and shown a willingness to be used as a political prop.

  • Barr lavishly praised Trump in an Oval Office photo-op office designed to increase political support for the president’s national emergency declaration.
  • In doing so, Barr gave the backing of the Department of Justice to Trump’s racist and likely unconstitutional efforts to build a wall on the southern border.

Barr even told us how he would clear Trump, months before he was appointed to the job.

  • Last June, Barr wrote an unsolicited, 19-page memo to the Justice Department calling Mueller’s investigation “fatally misconceived” and all but ruling out obstruction of justice charges using the exact reasoning he appears to have used in last week’s letter.
  • That memo, plus reports that the administration considered hiring him for Trump’s defense team, should have been enough for Barr to recuse. Instead, he took his place in what will almost certainly go down as one of the biggest scandals—and worst coverups—in American political history.

Barr’s actions since taking office have eroded any hope that Barr would handle the investigation properly. He has done nothing to earn the trust of the American people, especially when it comes to the Mueller investigation.

Releasing the full, unredacted Mueller report and its underlying evidence as quickly as possible would be an important step for Barr’s credibility; but more than that, it’s his obligation so that Congress can fulfill its constitutional duty. The public needs to know what Mueller uncovered, and Congress needs to weigh the evidence against the president and decide what merits a response. Until then, with Bill Barr, there can be no benefit of the doubt.