Why Barr’s denials of influence can’t be taken at face value

You probably need no reminder that Barr came to his position after President Trump ousted his first attorney general, Jeffrey B. Sessions III. Sessions, in Trump’s estimation, was insufficiently focused on targeting Trump’s political enemies or protecting Trump from hostile inquiries. The president sought a “Roy Cohn,” according to reporting — a reference to the former Joseph McCarthy and Donald Trump attorney renowned for his protection of his clients and aggression toward their targets. Trump nominated Barr to fill Sessions’s position and, while Sessions was frequently a public target of Trump’s frustrations, the president has repeatedly expressed his appreciation for Barr’s work.

Understandably. On a number of occasions, Barr and the Justice Department have taken actions or made announcements that adhere closely to what Trump would have liked to have seen.

When special counsel Robert S. Mueller III completed his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and its possible overlap with Trump’s campaign, Barr released a summary of Mueller’s findings that broadly exonerated the president. While Mueller declined to weigh in on whether Trump had committed obstruction of justice, Barr and then-Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein cleared the president on the question. (A large group of prosecutors disagreed.) Barr echoed Trump’s rhetoric on the Russia probe, including the allegation that Trump’s campaign had been “spied” upon (a formulation that other officials rejected). In May, Barr announced that the origins of the Russia investigation would be scrutinized by the U.S. Attorney for Connecticut, John Durham. Barr has reportedly been actively engaged in that investigation, traveling overseas as Durham speaks with potential witnesses. When questions emerged about Trump’s interactions with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky — interactions that led to Trump’s impeachment — a rough transcript of Trump’s call with Zelensky last year was accompanied by a statement from the Justice Department that Trump’s solicitation of an investigation into a possible presidential campaign opponent didn’t violate campaign finance rules. When the Justice Department inspector general released a report determining that the launch of the Russia probe hadn’t been influenced by anti-Trump bias, Barr and Durham released a statement to the effect that the question remained open until Durham’s work was complete.

Barr has been on the job for exactly one year.

There’s a very subtle distinction, to the extent that there is one at all, between hiring someone who you know is likely to take certain actions and instructing that person to take those actions after he is hired. Trump wanted an attorney general who would come to his defense in the way that Barr did; whether Barr needed to be instructed to take those actions is, to some extent irrelevant.

Barr made clear before he got the job that he’d be sympathetic to Trump’s positions. In 2018, he sent an unsolicited memo to the Justice Department arguing that Trump couldn’t be found to have committed obstruction of justice. As attorney general, he has repeatedly and publicly espoused a view of executive power that comports with what Trump would like to see. Last November, in the middle of the impeachment inquiry, Barr attacked those who “see the legislative and judicial branches as the good guys, protecting the people from a rapacious, would-be autocrat.”

That Barr is inherently sympathetic to Trump’s view of the presidency was the subtext to his comments to ABC News on Thursday.

After Trump publicly suggested this week that a sentencing recommendation for his longtime ally Roger Stone was too stiff, the Justice Department hurriedly scaled back its recommendation. The entire prosecutorial team who had been working on Stone’s case resigned. The ABC interview was meant as a way for Barr to stanch questions about the independence of the federal justice system.

“I think the essential role of the attorney general is to keep law enforcement, the criminal process sacrosanct to make sure there is no political interference in it,” Barr said. “And I have done that and I will continue to do that. And I’m happy to say that, in fact the president has never asked me to do anything in a criminal case.”

He did say that Trump’s tweets, like the one about Stone, weren’t helpful.

“If you tweet something about, someone should be investigated for this or someone should go to jail and it turns out you are investigating them at that point, let’s say, this is a hypothetical, then what do you do?” he said. “Because people might think that if you proceed with the investigation, it was prompted by the tweet. It’s the same kind of thing that happened here.”

There are two ways to read this. One is that the Justice Department is moving forward in an apolitical way and that Trump taints its work by overlaying a suggestion of political motivation after the fact. The other is that Barr’s Justice Department is taking actions that comport with what Trump wants to see anyway, so Trump’s commentary isn’t needed anyway.

It may well be the case that the latter is happening while Barr thinks the former is. To accept that Barr’s behavior is free from political influence, though, whether or not it comes from Trump, explicitly, is to accept that everything in the lengthy paragraph above documenting Barr’s actions was driven by nothing more than standard, apolitical consideration of the merits.

Trump, never one to 1) be told not to tweet or 2) leave well enough alone, weighed in on Barr’s interview on Friday morning.

There are indications, as The Post has reported, that Trump feels as though even what Barr has done on his behalf isn’t enough. It’s also the case that we’ve heard denials like the one above before, as with the incident documented by Mueller in which Trump asked then-White House Counsel Donald McGahn to fire the special counsel.

This is a good example, though, of where Barr is justified in being frustrated. He’s busily trying to organize a surprise party and Trump’s out there putting up billboards advertising the party he’s throwing. The entire point of hiring Barr was that Trump wouldn’t have to tweet about what he wanted Barr to do. So, Barr told ABC, he wishes Trump would just be quiet and let him do it.

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