We Should Not Have Been Surprised About Bill Barr

William Safire had his number 27 years ago.
May 1, 2019
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William Barr testifying before the Senate about the Mueller report. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

William Barr has turned out to be a surprise to many observers, who seem taken aback that the attorney general has been so disingenuous, misleading, and apparently willing to act as President Trump’s personal attorney.

The release of the redacted Mueller report exposed Barr as an egregiously unreliable narrator; but it was still startling to learn that Robert Mueller himself had complained about Barr’s attempts to spin his findings. In a letter dated March 27, Mueller wrote that the  four-page summary letter Barr released ahead of the full (but redacted) report “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance of this office’s work and conclusions.” As a result, Mueller wrote, “There is now public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation. This threatens to undermine a central purpose for which the Department appointed the Special Counsel: to assure full public confidence in the outcome of the investigations.”

Mueller also reiterated his call for Barr to quickly release a fuller version of the investigation, noting that the redaction process “need not delay release of the enclosed materials. Release at this time would alleviate the misunderstandings that have arisen and would answer congressional and public questions about the nature and outcome of our investigation.”

Barr, of course, continued to sit on the material and to mislead Congress and the public about its contents. When Barr testified before a congressional committee on April 9, Florida Democrat Charlie Crist asked him:

Reports have emerged recently, general, that members of the Special Counsel’s team are frustrated at some level with the limited information included in your March 24th letter … Do you know what they are referencing with that?

Barr responded, “No, I don’t.”

He didn’t do much better in his testimony to senators Wednesday, where he brushed off Mueller’s letter as “a bit snitty.” There was a lot more like that, including Barr’s descent into fawning eyewash about Trump.

Neal Katyal, the former acting solicitor general, called much of Barr’s testimony, “totally misleading.”

“If my law student summarized or described things this way,” said Katyal, “they’d get an F.”

Barr’s performance, said Katyal was “conduct totally unbecoming for the Attorney General of the United States.”

Pretty surprising stuff, no? Well, not really. Nearly three decades ago, William Safire had Barr’s number.  The former Nixon speechwriter turned author and columnist wrote devastating critiques of Barr’s first turn as attorney general, labelling him repeatedly as “General Coverup.”

Reading Safire’s columns today in light of Barr’s latest undertakings is, well, illuminating.

Barr, it turns out, has for 30 years been the go-to guy for protecting a president, covering up scandals, and obstructing investigations. In August 1992, Safire wrote about Barr’s refusal to appoint an independent counsel to investigate what he called Iraqgate – the shadowy diversion of funds that Saddam Hussein used to build up his military after the Iran-Iraq War. It is now a nearly forgotten chapter of history, but Safire lasered in on what he thought was “the Bush Administration’s fraudulent use of public funds, its sustained deception of Congress and its obstruction of justice.”

In August 1992, he wrote about Barr’s refusal to name an independent counsel, despite what Safire saw as an “obvious conflict of interest.”  (Another independent counsel, Lawrence Walsh had been named to investigate the Iran-contra affair in 1986 and would infuriate Republicans when he issued high profile indictments on the eve of the 1992 election.) Wrote Safire:

U.S. Attorney General William Barr, in rejecting the House Judiciary Committee’s call for a prosecutor not beholden to the Bush Administration to investigate the crimes of Iraqgate, has taken personal charge of the cover-up.

The document that will be Exhibit A in a future prosecution of obstruction of justice is an unsigned 97-page apologia that accompanied Mr. Barr’s unprecedented refusal to recognize a “political conflict of interest,” as called for in the law.

Read it for yourself; though intended to explain in detail why Congress does not understand the intent of Congress, Barr’s Apology does the opposite: its strained defensiveness will cause any objective reader to say “something smells fishy here.”

Three months later, Safire revisited the issue after Barr “handpicked a whitewasher” who would successfully filibuster the probe until after the election.”Why does the Coverup-General resist independent investigation?” Safire asked

Barr’s clear strategy, Safire wrote, “has been to stall past Dec. 15, when the law authorizing independent counsel expires; Republicans recently filibustered its extension to death.” Whoever won the 1992 election, “no autonomous prosecutor could then be named; Iraqgate might then become a matter between departing and incoming Presidents, and bygones could be bygones …” And that is pretty much what happened.

But Barr 1.0 had one more chapter left. He was one of the driving forces behind what Safire called the “Christmas eve massacre” of the Iran-contra probe. Barr pushed hard for last minute pardons for six individuals caught up in the investigation, including former defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. The dramatic move on December 24, 1992, aborted Weinberger’s trial, which was slated to begin the next month, “virtually decapitating what was left of Mr. Walsh’s effort, which began in 1986.” Walsh denounced the pardons as part of the cover-up that “has continued for more than six years.” The decision to issue pardons, he said, “undermines the principle that no man is above the law. It demonstrates that powerful people with powerful allies can commit serious crimes in high office, deliberately abusing the public trust without consequences.”

Over the years the Iran-contra scandal has faded; while “Iraqgate” has been reduced to a historical nullity. Few Republicans lamented the crushing of Walsh’s investigation and many still remember his role in the 1992 elections with bitterness. His tenure effectively discredited the independent counsel law in the eyes of both parties.

But what of Barr’s conduct in covering up, protecting his boss, and using pardons to obstruct justice? All of this raises some rankling questions while answering others.

How did all of this fall into our collective memory hole? Why didn’t Barr’s well-documented handling of that earlier scandal damage his reputation? Or least raise caution flags?

And how much did Barr’s track record factor into Trump’s decision to appoint him attorney general in the midst of the Mueller investigation?

Which brings us back to today. Barr’s legal legerdemain has come as a surprise to those who wonder why Barr has been so willing to sacrifice his reputation to protect Trump. Perhaps because he has done it all before. And it worked out just fine for him.

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.