Barring the Details
In his memoirs, former Attorney General William Barr reveals himself to be a skilled lawyer and a confirmed toady.
by William P. Barr (William Morrow, 608 pp., $35)
I picked up Bill Barr’s memoir, One Damned Thing after Another, thinking him to be among the most loathsome and dangerous of the individuals who agreed to serve in a high position under President Donald Trump. He is loathsome, I believed, because he is a toady. And he is dangerous because he is both highly intelligent and dishonest, willing to subvert Justice Department norms in the service of a demagogue. The question now, having actually read his life story, is whether my judgment was right or wrong on either count.
Barr’s memoir begins conventionally enough. He tells the story of his background, education, and meteoric rise. Raised on New York City’s Upper West Side—the product of a “committed Catholic” mother and a Jewish father who in mid-life converted to Catholicism—Barr was educated by nuns in the school of the Corpus Christi Church until, at grade seven, he transferred to the tony Horace Mann School and then on to college at Columbia.
By eleventh grade he set himself a remarkable goal: to become a CIA director. As a freshman at Columbia in 1967, as the campus was being roiled by the Vietnam War, he took up Chinese and China studies, not out of a passion for the subjects but because it was a route to his career objective. A CIA internship followed college, coupled with law school at night. Success came fast. By age twenty-six, Barr was already a lawyer in the CIA, advising then-director George H.W. Bush as he testified before Congress.
Coming into contact with all sorts of leading conservative figures, Barr shuffled around Washington, taking a slot for a time in the Reagan White House and then making partner in his law firm. When George H.W. Bush became President, Barr was appointed to a high position in the Department of Justice. Personnel turned over and he became acting attorney general and then attorney general himself.
Barr engagingly recounts the major episodes of his tenure. It was “one damn thing after another:” a hostage drama involving Cuban inmates at a federal prison facility; the Clarence Thomas nomination fight; the aftermath of the Pan Am 103 bombing case; the Rodney King case and the ensuing riots; the first Gulf War. With Bush’s defeat in 1992, Barr returned to the private sector where he remained for a long time—the next twenty-six years.
If the story had ended there, it would be a not terribly significant account of the highly successful career of a conservative lawyer. But Barr ended up serving as attorney general for a second spell, this time in the Trump administration.
As his memoir makes plain, at some point, apparently during the Obama years, Barr became radicalized and angry. The Trump-era section of his book begins with an extended tirade against President Barack Obama and the “Maoist” American Left, which was “taking a wrecking ball to the country.” Obama, he writes, was a “left-wing agitator” who “degraded the culture.” Obama’s failures were “symptoms of a deeper disorder:” the Democratic Party had been captivated by “a Far Left progressive ideology that aimed to tear down and remake American society.” It operated with “an incipient totalitarian style” and sought to “pulverize the values of the middle and working classes” while engaging in “Marxist redistributionism.”
It was this horror show that led Barr, after initially supporting the candidacy of Jeb Bush, wholeheartedly to endorse Trump. As soon as he won the nomination, he “wrote a check the next day.” Indeed, given the left-wing alternative, writes Barr, “I would crawl over broken glass to the polls to vote for Trump.”
Two years into the Trump administration, Attorney General Jeff Sessions was forced out and Barr was considered for the vacancy. In his memoir, Barr denies campaigning for the job, but he had written and circulated a lengthy memo picking apart the ongoing Russia investigation, which came to Trump’s attention and did not hurt.
To say that Barr’s second tenure as attorney general was marked by turbulence is a serious understatement. As he surveys the major controversies, Barr is nothing if not a highly skilled lawyer, capable of marshalling facts and arguments in convincing fashion. On first reading, I found his handling of various disputed episodes to be more persuasive than I had expected. But that is not saying much. The trouble with Barr’s account is that, on close scrutiny, it is riddled with falsehoods and deceptive omissions.
To Barr, Russiagate was “nonsense,” a completely ginned-up scandal, and he calls it perhaps “the biggest political injustice in our history.” As a prelude to recounting his own role in it, he tells the entire story. His conclusion, repeated ad nauseum in the text, is that there was no “collusion” between the Trump campaign and Russia, and that charges of obstruction of justice against Trump were not sustainable because of “evidence suggesting that the President lacked a corrupt intent.” The Mueller investigation, he concludes, precisely echoing his boss, was “something not so different from a witch hunt.”
It is of course true that the Mueller investigation, as its final report stated, “did not establish that the Trump Campaign coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” But this carefully worded formulation, while leaving Trump and his campaign in the legal clear, did not address behavior that might fall under the non-criminal rubric of collusion. Collusion, reads the report and as Barr knows full well, “is not a specific offense or theory of liability found in the United States Code, nor is it a term of art in federal criminal law.” Curiously, certain critical episodes that could count as intent to collude—or, for that matter, intent to coordinate—like the Trump Tower meeting where the Trump campaign avidly sought “dirt” on Hillary Clinton from a Russian operative, are omitted from Barr’s highly detailed account. If the press and much of the public became “obsessed” with Trump’s manifold ties to Russia and his troubling affinity with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, there was ample reason why.
Barr focuses on the FBI investigation of Trump, arguing that the bureau lacked adequate predication to open a case, calling the decision a “travesty” and the evidence justifying it “flimsy.” This too entails an omission. Barr clearly read the inspector general’s (IG) report that exhaustively reviewed the FBI’s decision to open an investigation. Indeed, he cites it approvingly when it suits his purposes. According to the IG report, the evidence available to the FBI
was sufficient to predicate the investigation. This information provided the FBI with an articulable factual basis that, if true, reasonably indicated activity constituting either a federal crime or a threat to national security, or both, may have occurred or may be occurring.
This finding is entirely elided in Barr’s telling.
Turning to obstruction of justice, Barr approvingly cites a former FBI official who said that Trump “never did anything to interfere with either the original counterintelligence investigation or with the Special Counsel’s inquiry.” What is more, adds Barr, repeating it in the text on more than one occasion, Trump “directed his aides to testify, and asserted no privilege.”
This is demonstrable rubbish. For cooperating with law enforcement authorities, Trump called Michael Cohen, his former attorney, a “rat”—mobster-speak for someone who breaks the code of omertà and betrays associates to the police. As for his campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, who went to prison rather than cooperate with investigators, Trump, in more unconcealed gangster argot, publicly praised him for refusing to “break,” calling cooperation with law enforcement “flipping,” which was “not fair” and “almost ought to be outlawed.” Conveying unsubtle hints, Trump and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani dangled pardons before criminal associates like Manafort and, in due course, delivered on the implicit pardon promises. This is extraordinarily damning stuff. About it, once again, Barr says not a word.
Barr mounts a strong defense, plausible on its own terms, of his decision to drop charges against General Michael Flynn, who had already pleaded guilty, and for reducing the sentence recommendation of convicted felon Roger Stone. He maintains that the former was unfairly investigated and the latter was at risk of being too harshly punished. But what he never stops to explain, and which leaves a bad odor, is why, out of the hundreds if not thousands of cases that came before the Justice Department during his tenure, the only two in which he chose to intervene for leniency were cronies of his boss.
To Barr’s credit, Trump’s claims about a stolen election in 2020 were a bridge too far for him, and are presumably what led to his resignation in late December 2020. But, of course, before the election he himself had curried favor with Trump by whipping up public fears of fraud, warning of mass counterfeiting of ballots by foreign countries and pointing to a case of voter fraud in Texas purportedly involving 1,700 ballots. Both allegations were spurious. Coming from an attorney general with the weight of the Department of Justice behind his words, this was egregious. Barr mentions neither unfounded warning in his memoir. A pattern is becoming evident here.
Barr’s unctuous resignation letter bears out my characterization of him as a toady:
I am proud to have played a role in the many successes and unprecedented achievements you have delivered for the American people. Your record is all the more historic because you accomplished it in the face of relentless, implacable resistance.
One of the more remarkable things about Barr’s memoir is the portrait that emerges in it of the president he served with unwavering fidelity. Although he has many absurdly flattering things to say about Trump, he is also unsparing with the negatives.
Trump, in Barr’s telling, exhibited “excessively petulant behavior” with a “constant sense of drama, chaos, and rancor surrounding him;” had a “penchant for casting blame on others and in all directions;” was “a hyperactive generator of ideas, many of them bad,” some of them “idiotic;” had poor judgment—“the worse the idea, the more fixated on it he became;” “surrounded himself with sycophants, including many whack jobs from outside government;” regularly “yielded to his impulse for pettiness and pointless nastiness;” exhibited “erratic egotism;” had a “lack of self-control;” and displayed “a shocking detachment from reality.”
This is quite a picture. It says a great deal about Barr’s political orientation that, notwithstanding what he has seen up close of Trump’s character, if Trump wins the GOP nomination for the presidency in 2024, he has declared his intention to support him for a second term in the White House. That is an abomination.
Gabriel Schoenfeld, a contributing editor of American Purpose, is a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center.
American Purpose newsletters
Sign up to get our essays and updates—you pick which ones—right in your inbox.Subscribe