So William Barr has been confirmed as the Attorney General of the United States. All but three Democrats voted against him. They had good reasons to suspect that rather than serving the nation, and protecting the Constitution, he’d serve and protect the corrupt and lawless President of the United States. Among the grounds for rejecting him:
• He had written that infamous 17-page memo, critical of aspects of the Mueller investigation and putting forward an inflated notion of the powers and privileges of the presidency.
• He refused to declare that he would recuse himself from overseeing the Mueller investigation if the ethics people at DOJ so advised him, saying that the law leaves such a matter ultimately to the judgment of the AG.
• He refused also to give strong assurances that he would see that Mueller’s report would be made known to the Congress and the public as fully as possible.
So the image of Barr that many of us have as he takes office is that he cannot be trusted to uphold the rule of law and to make sure that the American people learn all that Mueller wants us to know of what he’s discovered about this President.
And that image may well prove to be valid. But I’ve been imagining this other story of William Barr.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that the following scenario is true. I’m not even saying that it’s probably true. Just that it could be true—or, to put it another way, that it’s as plausible as the plots of a lot of the movies I’ve seen. Here’s my fantasy about William Barr.
In this fantasy, William Barr is watching the Trump/Mueller saga unfolding and is appalled. In this scenario, Barr is a man who has a passion for the rule of law, and can’t abide the ongoing display of Trump’s obstruction of justice. He’s worried that irreparable damage might be done to the American system of justice, and to the nation more broadly, if Trump manages to subordinate the DOJ (and the supervision of the Mueller investigation) to his will.
He can foresee that AG Sessions will be removed, and that this will open the door for Trump to install some sort of stooge—someone as basically corrupt as Matt Whitaker, but confirmable by the Senate. And he says to himself, “Somebody has got to find a way to stop this!”
And then it comes to him: “I’m going to see if I can get myself the AG job, and see to it that worse doesn’t come to worst.”
He’s got some things going for him: he was Attorney General once before, before the Republican Party became crazy. He’s eminently confirmable, because though he has some questionable things in his past, he’s basically respected in legal circles.
But first, he’s got to call attention to himself. So he drafts the infamous memo, which makes some arguments that are sure to appeal to Trump. People have suspected that he was campaigning for the job, and that would be true in this fantasy scenario as well. He made sure the folks in the White House knew about the memo.
And he did get Trump’s attention, leading to Trump nominating him.
That left the confirmation hearings as the main hurdle. Some have described Barr, in those hearings, as playing to “an audience of one.” Namely the President. And he had reason to take that audience seriously—as it has been reported that Trump was tempted to withdraw the nomination of Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court when he learned that Gorsuch had been critical of Trump’s attacks on the independent judiciary.
Barr worked to answer the questions put to him in such a manner that Trump would feel secure that Barr was equivocating in order to obscure the fact that his real loyalty was to the President, whereas in fact, he needed to obscure that he really would protect the rule of law.
So he was non-committal about whether he’d recuse himself. And he was equally vague about what criteria he would use in determining what he’d allow to be made public.
That was not enough to satisfy the Democrats. But he didn’t need the Democrats to get confirmed, and in the meanwhile, Trump would be comfortable that, in time, Barr would resolve his ambiguity in favor of doing the President’s bidding.
So now this William Barr – having come back into the political arena to be the protector of the American system of justice, and the integrity of our constitutional order – sits in the AG seat, waiting for the moment of truth that he’d envisioned from the start.
In this fantasy, Barr will do what he needs to do to make sure that he won’t be fired before that moment when the Mueller report comes to him and he takes it public. If he gets fired after the cat is fully out of the bag, no big problem. Mission Accomplished.
Is this fantasy true?
Well, it seems that there are two possibilities.
Either Barr has come out of private life to play the part of Trump’s whore, or to play the hero.
(Given the circumstances involving the office of AG and this President, can there be any other alternative besides those two?)
It certainly makes sense to be worried that it is the worse of the two possibilities. Things are usually more or less what they seem. And this scenario of trickery would be a rather unusual story outside the movies.
But these are quite unusual times. And there are aspects of what’s visible on the surface that don’t seem entirely credible.
Here’s a man who is 68, with a (mostly) distinguished career behind him. What would motivate him to change the trajectory of his life in this way?
(His becoming AG has led two of his adult children who work at the DOJ to quit their jobs in the department. Would he have had them sacrifice –or at least disrupt — themselves professionally in that way just to disgrace himself?)
He’s near the end of his professional life. At one of the most crucial moments in the nation’s history, what Barr does now will determine how history sees him. (Not everyone is as indifferent as Rudy Guiliani to his legacy: “I’ll be dead.”)
Maybe he’s signed on for disgrace. Or maybe for heroism.
Time will tell which it is.