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Bill Barr Was Worse Than You Thought

The attorney general blustered, fought, and stalled his way through a contentious appearance before Congress.
July 28, 2020
Featured Image
US Attorney General William Barr wears a face mask as he arrives from a break in his testimony to the House Judiciary Committee in the Congressional Auditorium at the US Capitol Visitors Center, July 28, 2020 in Washington, DC. - In his first congressional testimony in more than a year, Barr is expected to face questions from the committee about his deployment of federal law enforcement agents to Portland, Oregon, and other cities in response to Black Lives Matter protests; his role in using federal agents to violently clear protesters from Lafayette Square near the White House last month before a photo opportunity for President Donald Trump in front of a church; his intervention in court cases involving Trump's allies Roger Stone and Michael Flynn; and other issues. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla / POOL / AFP) (Photo by CHIP SOMODEVILLA/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

The most revealing moment at Tuesday’s House Judiciary Committee hearing with Attorney General William Barr was actually several moments—long awkward ones.

During the contentious hearing, Representative David Cicilline (D-R.I.) asked Barr what seemed like a straightforward question: “Is it ever appropriate, sir, for the president to solicit or accept foreign assistance in an election?”

Instead of answering, Barr dodged and parried.

“It depends what kind of assistance,” he said.

Cicilline tried again. Speaking deliberately, he repeated the question: “Is it ever appropriate for the president or presidential candidate to accept or solicit foreign assistance of any kind in his or her election?”

Finally, a full 15 seconds after he was first asked the question, Barr answered: “No, it’s not appropriate.”

Notably, this is not the first time that Barr has struggled with that question. On May 1, 2019, Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.) also tried to get a straight answer from Barr.

“Going forward, what if a foreign adversary offers a presidential candidate dirt on a competitor in 2020?” Coons asked, suggesting North Korea as a possible actor. “Do you agree with me the campaign should immediately contact the FBI?”

Barr hesitated, leaving a pause of at least 5 seconds.

“If a foreign government? If a foreign intelligence service?” Barr finally answered, parsing his words carefully. “If a foreign intelligence service does, yes.”

You can watch that clip here:

So here is the question: What was going through Barr’s mind last May and then again today? It was an easy question for anyone who has taken the oath to protect the nation.

Why not snap out a quick reply and move on? What was the hesitation? What was going through his mind?

Should I make it clear that foreign interference is wrong? Or will that anger the president, the only audience I care about? How can I hedge?

But let’s not overthink this, because there’s really no mystery here. Barr has told us who is he over and over.

Some of us thought that Barr would be pretty awful as Trump’s designated Roy Cohn. Back in April 2019, I offered “Seven Reasons Not to Trust William Barr.” But Tuesday he reminded us that he has turned out to be even worse that the pessimists feared.

“Your opening statement reads like it was written by Alex Jones or Roger Stone,” Representative Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) quipped. He exaggerated only slightly.

As the Washington Post noted:

By now, Barr has established himself as a loyal defender of Trump, willing to make decisions that at the very least give the appearance that Barr is doing Trump’s personal bidding. Barr denies politics plays a role in his decisions while leading the Justice Department.

But on Tuesday, he did little to dissuade the criticism that Trump’s personal desires influence him. In his efforts to defend himself, Barr painted Trump as the consummate professional president, giving Barr “complete freedom” to do what he needs. “From my experience, the president has played a role properly and traditionally played by presidents,” Barr testified.

But this seems to understate the impact of Barr’s performance. On issue after issue, the attorney general displayed his willingness to adapt himself to Trumpian bullsh*t, even if that included lying on the president’s behalf:

Under questioning about the government’s coronavirus response, Mr. Barr defended Mr. Trump by also falsely blaming former “President Obama’s mishandling” of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for testing shortages and a “run down” Strategic National Stockpile.

The first claim was a reference to a 2014 draft policy on laboratory-developed tests that was never finished or enforced. (The Justice Department plays no role in procuring and distributing tests.) The stockpile, which is the federal government’s repository of medicines and medicinal products, contained more than $7 billion worth of supplies with Mr. Trump took office and had more than 16,660 ventilators available when the pandemic began.

Mr. Barr’s description of protests last month in Washington’s Lafayette Square and the federal response also mirrored that of Mr. Trump and his White House press secretary. St. John’s Church “was on fire,” the attorney general said of a small fire in the basement. And he misleadingly insisted that “no tear gas was used,” though the United States Park Police confirmed “the use of smoke canisters and pepper balls.”

This is not normal stuff. Barr repeated Trump’s claims that mail-in voting would lead to massive fraud, attacked the credibility of National Guard whistleblower Adam DeMarco, and played the Antifa card to justify the surge of federal agents into the nation’s cities. As former Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller tweeted:

But Barr’s approach clearly appealed to the GOP’s hacky-sack demo:

Two other things worth noting:

Despite all his tough-guy bravado, Barr has thin skin and at times he was clearly rattled:

When Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.) asked Barr “under penalty of perjury” whether his past statements about the White House having fully cooperated with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation were true, Barr quipped that they were also wise—and then growled at Neguse when he pivoted to the next question.

“You said ‘under penalty of perjury’—I’m going to answer the damn question,” he said.

He also struggled under questions from Representative Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) about his hypocrisy on protests. She accused Barr of taking “an aggressive approach to Black Lives Matter protests, but not to right-wing extremists threatening to lynch a governor if it’s for . . . the president’s benefit”:

In Michigan when protesters carried guns and Confederate flags and swastikas and called for the governor of Michigan to be beheaded and shot and lynched, somehow you are not aware of that. Somehow you didn’t know about it so you didn’t send federal agents in to do to the president’s supporters what you did to the president’s protesters. . . . There is a real discrepancy in how you react as the attorney general—the top cop in this country. When white men with swastikas storm a government building with guns, there is no need for the president to “activate” you, because they’re getting the president’s personal agenda done. But when black people and people of color protest police brutality, systemic racism, and the president’s very own lack of response to those critical issues, then you forcibly remove them with armed federal officers [and] pepper bombs because they are considered terrorists by the president.

You can watch the exchange here:

It wasn’t his finest moment, but it probably played well enough in the White House. Which, after all, is all Bill Barr really cares about, isn’t it?

Charles Sykes

Charlie Sykes is a founder and editor-at-large of The Bulwark and the author of How the Right Lost Its Mind. He is also the host of The Bulwark Podcast and an MSNBC contributor.