It wouldn’t be quite accurate to say that Bill Barr is “in trouble”.
After all, he is the nation’s top law enforcement official, and at a time when America’s system of checks and balances has been undermined such that congressional oversight has no real teeth, there’s a very real sense in which Barr cannot get in “trouble”.
But, he is learning that no matter how prepared you think you are to hold a top position in the Trump administration, you will at some point find yourself overwhelmed by the sheer, blatant belligerence of the man who occupies the Oval Office – belligerence which could land you in some extremely uncomfortable positions.
To be sure, Barr has spent decades waiting for a chance to do precisely what he’s doing right now: Working to expand executive power nearly to the point of making the president unaccountable and moonlighting as a would-be theocrat bent on purging American society of progressive ideals.
And yet, Trump’s flagrant touting of Barr’s intervention in Roger Stone’s sentencing this week (which prompted the resignation of all four prosecutors on the case) has Barr on the defensive. A day after agreeing to testify before the House Judiciary committee, the attorney general spoke to ABC, and told the network that the president’s tweets (among other things) make it “impossible” for him to do his job.
“Public statements, and tweets made about the department, about people in the department, about cases pending, and about judges before whom we have cases, make it impossible for me to do my job”, Barr said.
He also said it’s become impossible to “assure the courts and the prosecutors within the department that we’re doing our work with integrity”.
Asked directly if he is “prepared for the ramifications” of his remarks, Barr paused. “Of course. As I said during my confirmation, I came in to serve as attorney general… I’m not going to be bullied or influenced by anyone whether it’s Congress, newspaper editorial boards or the president”.
There are a couple of things to note here. First, it’s entirely possible Barr told Trump what he was going to say and made it clear that saying this on television would help with the terrible optics around the Stone debacle. Second, as one former federal prosecutor said Thursday, “this just shows Barr doesn’t like Trump talking openly about what’s really going on – Barr helping out Trump’s buddy [and] making sure he doesn’t cooperate”. In other words, what Barr really means is this: “Trump’s tweets make my job impossible because those tweets draw attention to some of the worst abuses of power in the history of the republic”.
However, Barr also told ABC the following: “I cannot do my job here at the department with a constant background commentary that undercuts me”.
If that’s a reference to Trump’s tweets, it’s hard to imagine Trump would have countenanced that kind of rebuke, but who knows. Maybe it’s just three-dimensional chess to make it appear as though Barr still retains some shred of credibility.
One thing that’s at least worth considering: Barr is, perhaps more than anyone else in Trump’s orbit, indispensable. As The New Yorker put it in a profile piece last month, Barr is “sword and shield” for this president. He can, in theory anyway, get away with more than anyone else (save perhaps Mitch McConnell) when it comes to criticizing Trump.
Speaking of McConnell, he told Fox News on Thursday that the president should listen to Barr: “I think if the attorney general says it’s getting in the way of doing his job, maybe the president should listen to the attorney general”.
And yet, this came on the same day that Trump lambasted John Kelly for comments made during an event at Drew University on Wednesday.
“When I terminated John Kelly, which I couldn’t do fast enough, he knew full well that he was way over his head”, the president fumed. “He came in with a bang, went out with a whimper, but like so many X’s, he misses the action [and] just can’t keep his mouth shut”, Trump went on to say.
The president then mentioned Kelly’s wife. “His incredible wife, Karen, who I have a lot of respect for, once pulled me aside [and] said strongly that ‘John respects you greatly. When we are no longer here, he will only speak well of you.’ Wrong!”
Trump does that habitually. And it’s always the same unspoken message. It’s a tacit threat. The same as that scene in Goodfellas when Jimmy The Gent takes the truck driver’s license out of his wallet and replaces it with a $50. “You may know who we are, but we know who you are, understand?”, Jimmy says.
Barr’s comments to ABC Thursday were almost surely choreographed with the White House. But no matter how integral Barr thinks he is, the first time he criticizes America’s home-grown autocrat without permission, he’ll be Jeff Sessions in no time flat.