With the possible exception of Fox News, few domestic actors did more to protect Donald Trump over the final two years of the most fraught presidency in modern US history than William Barr.
On March 24, 2019, barely 48 hours after receiving the voluminous Mueller Report, Barr released his infamous “principal conclusions,” which effectively cleared Trump of obstruction, paving the way for the White House to falsely declare that the special counsel found no evidence of wrongdoing.
In fact, the Mueller Report was replete with evidence to support all manner of accusations, if not actual charges, and Mueller himself chided Barr in a letter. “The summary the Department sent to Congress and released to the public late in the afternoon of March 24 did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance of this office’s work and conclusions,” Mueller told Barr, on March 27, 2019.
By the time Barr finally got around to releasing the full report to the public, the administration had ample time to drive home the “no collusion, no obstruction” narrative which was, at best, only half-true.
But Barr’s enabling of Trump’s brazen approach to governing hardly stopped with Mueller. He also made Trump’s dream of a counter-investigation into the origins of the Mueller probe a reality, and it appeared the Attorney General was poised to back Trump’s inevitable allegations of voter fraud. In the months ahead of the election, Barr made a series of misleading claims about mail-in ballots, for example.
And yet, there were times when one could discern Barr’s limits. For example, the Justice Department distanced itself from the Ukraine scandal after it emerged that Trump mentioned Barr’s name while attempting to cajole Volodymyr Zelensky into launching an investigation into Joe Biden and his family.
Over the past two weeks, Barr found himself at odds with Trump after failing to countenance the far-fetched allegations of attorneys Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani, both of whom have pushed various theories about the election without providing anything that even approximates the kind of evidence a court might demand when something as consequential as the US presidency is at stake.
Barr also reportedly worked to keep a tax probe into Hunter Biden from becoming public in order to avoid a scenario where the Justice Department became ensnared in campaign politics. He also declined to deliver the kind of game-changing results Trump demanded from the counter-investigation conducted by John Durham, although he did appoint Durham special counsel, giving him protection for the duration of his work.
Last month, Barr dipped his toes into the shark-infested, post-election waters with a caveat-riddled memo authorizing federal prosecutors to investigate allegations of voter fraud. Richard Pilger, the official who presided over such investigations, immediately stepped down. Barr’s memo was chock-full of what amounted to disclaimers, including guidance that investigations should not be pursued when allegations of fraud are “specious, speculative, fanciful, or far-fetched.”
Then, earlier this month, Barr told the AP that “to date, we have not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election.” “There’s a growing tendency to use the criminal justice system as sort of a default fix-all,” he added, noting that “there must be a basis to believe there is a crime to investigate.”
In other words: Barr essentially told the AP that Trump’s claims were baseless.
Shortly thereafter, questions began to swirl about Barr’s imminent exit. On Monday evening, Trump made it official. “Just had a very nice meeting with Attorney General Bill Barr at the White House. Our relationship has been a very good one, he has done an outstanding job!”, Trump tweeted.
Then, he informed the public that Barr “will be leaving just before Christmas to spend the holidays with his family.”
In a letter, Barr lavishes praise on Trump, but what’s notable is the first sentence. “I appreciate the opportunity to update you this afternoon on the Department’s review of voter fraud allegations in the 2020 election and how these allegations will continue to be pursued,” Barr wrote.
One possible interpretation is that Trump was not satisfied with Barr’s “update.”
Barr proceeded to deliver what I think it’s entirely fair to describe as a laughably obsequious pseudo-resignation. He described a “abusive and deceitful” campaign to “cripple, if not oust, your Administration” and characterized collusion allegations as “frenzied and baseless.”
Barr also called Trump’s pre-pandemic economy “the strongest and most resilient in American history.” While “resilient” admits of some subjectivity, “strongest” doesn’t, and on that score, Barr is simply not telling the truth. Trump’s economy was, on average, the same as Obama’s economy and nowhere near the strongest economy in US history.
“Deputy Attorney General Jeff Rosen, an outstanding person, will become Acting Attorney General,” Trump went on to say Monday evening. He then shouted “Thank you to all!”
On December 1, when Barr told the AP that no voter fraud on a scale large enough to change the election outcome had occurred, Chuck Schumer joked “I guess he’s the next one to be fired.”