William Barr, Human Shield

Author  Jon Allsop

On Wednesday, William Barr, the attorney general, appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Hours earlier, The Washington Post had reported that Robert Mueller, the special counsel, had sent Barr a letter in late March suggesting that Barr had misrepresented Mueller’s Russia report in his initial public summary of it. Facing the Senate, Barr was asked for an explanation. “The letter’s a bit snitty,” he replied, suggesting an underling had written it.

Yesterday morning, Barr refused to meet the House Judiciary Committee, declining the offer to be grilled by staff lawyers. In his absence, Democratic lawmakers gave Barr the empty-seat-with-his-name-on-it treatment. Steve Cohen, Democrat of Tennessee, brought along a plastic chicken and a bucket of KFC. “Chicken Barr should have shown up today,” he told reporters.

The press relished the scene. Between them, the successive “hearings” proved that the Mueller spin cycle is still going strong, two weeks after his (redacted) report was finally published. The full truth of the investigation—or close to it—is now in public view, yet politicians continue to dissimulate around it. Republicans continue to back Barr as an honest broker, and accuse Democrats and reporters of working to slime him. Across the aisle, Democrats can barely contain their fury. The House Judiciary Committee threatened to hold Barr in contempt unless he handed over the unredacted version of Mueller’s report; Barr blew past Wednesday’s deadline to provide it. Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, said that the emergence of Mueller’s letter contradicted Congressional testimony previously given by Barr, and accused Barr of committing perjury. A spokesperson for the Justice Department called Pelosi’s language “reckless, irresponsible, and false.” The cycle continues to spin.

The Barr/Mueller information war has played out among members of the media, too. After Wednesday’s Senate hearing, outlets on the right and left published contradictory versions of the same story. CNN’s Oliver Darcy noted that hyper-partisan websites were working overtime to profit off of the hearing: there was, he noted, “plenty of material to go around that fits into left/right ideological prisms.” The Times rounded up divergent reaction from more mainstream publications, re-upping a format that has become a staple at a time of conflicting political realities. On the right, National Review calledDemocratic outrage about Barr’s initial summary of the Mueller report an “incredibly dumb… non-scandal.” On the left, The Nation countered that Barr resembled “Sarah Sanders with a law degree—a shambling propagandist seeking to create confusion.” The Wall Street Journal editorial board called Barr “a real attorney general”; the media, it said, is demonizing Barr for “making the hard decisions that Mueller abdicated.” Trump tweeted the link.

As I’ve written before, Barr’s long-held, expansive view of presidential authority always merited aggressive media scrutiny. Barr’s conduct around the Mueller report has, belatedly, brought the full weight of that scrutiny to bear across most of the mainstream press. That’s a good thing. As many observers have noted, Barr is acting more like the president’s personal attorney than the impartial law enforcer his current job demands. Whatever his boosters say, Barr’s official public statements about Mueller and his report have often contradicted each other, or subsequently been found to have elided key context.

And let’s not forget, the Barr story is about Trump. Coverage should place front and center that Mueller’s report presented damning information about the president, particularly on obstruction. As the Post notes in a front-page headline this morning, Barr is proving to be the legal “shield” Trump always wanted. We shouldn’t allow Barr to shield Trump in the press, too.

Below, more (again) on William Barr:

What’s the problem? On Wednesday, in front of the Senate, Barr said that the media, not William Barr, had stoked confusion around his initial summary of the Mueller report, and that Mueller had said as much in a subsequent phone call. “I received the letter, and called Bob and said what's the issue here?” Barr said. "I asked him if he was suggesting that the March 24th letter was inaccurate, and he said no, but that the press reporting had been inaccurate, and that the press was reading too much into it.” Politico’s Blake Hounshell has more analysis.

The problem: According to the Post, Trump was pleased by Barr’s performance before the Senate. “A White House official said that Barr had ‘set the narrative’ in a way that was positive for the White House and that the swirling debate about the special counsel has just been ‘noise.’” Keen to lock this narrative down, the administration is refusing to comply with Democratic oversight requests. Yesterday, Trump said that he doesn’t want Don McGahn—the White House counsel turned key Mueller witness—to testify to Congress. “Congress shouldn’t be looking anymore,” Trump told Fox News. “This is all. It’s done.”

Democratic deflection? Senior Congressional Democrats, too, deserve scrutiny over their moves to put Barr front and center—they’re going after the attorney general, critics suggest, to deflect from divisions in the caucus about the wisdom of going after Trump. “Stop with this nonsense and take a vote on who wants to see the president fired. Get senators on the record,” Rolling Stone’s Jamil Smith argues. Accountability will not be served “as long as public servants in the House and Senate limit their demands for impeachment to tweets and press releases, and we citizens remain content to be entertained by our leaders dunking on authoritarians in a hearing.”