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Trump’s attorney general sends a letter from No Man’s Land
Former Attorney General William Barr stands for a portrait at his house in McLean, Virginia, on Wednesday, March 2. Shuran Huang/For NPR hide caption
Shuran Huang/For NPR
Former Attorney General William Barr stands for a portrait at his house in McLean, Virginia, on Wednesday, March 2.
Shuran Huang/For NPR
William P. Barr’s memoir — out Tuesday — spans seven decades but is inevitably dominated by his two years as attorney general under former President Donald Trump. His account of those years will be read hungrily by Trump’s fiercest defenders and harshest detractors. It is unlikely to satisfy either.
It is just as unlikely to win over Barr’s own critics, including those who were angered by the way he left his job with the Trump administration (late in 2020) and those appalled by the way he got it in the first place (nominated late in 2018).
Barr has, in essence, written a letter from No Man’s Land.
Barr alternates between castigating and exonerating, between sounding sympathetic and exasperated. He catalogs Trump’s offenses yet casts him as the latest victim of dishonest media and “the radical Left.”
Barr reports that at the end of Trump’s term, the president had “lost his grip” and become “manic and unreasonable” and “off the rails,” heeding the advice of “whack jobs.” Yet Barr thinks Trump could have won in 2020 with “a minor adjustment in his behavior,” and he wishes he had.
Barr’s title, One Damn Thing After Another: Memoirs of An Attorney General quotes a predecessor’s summation of the job. But it could scarcely have been as tempestuous as Barr’s. And that tempest is far from over.
Barr is not going to return to Trump’s good graces with a book that dismisses doubts about the 2020 election as baseless (using a term for barnyard excrement). Nor will he be invited to Mar-a-Lago after arguing the Republican Party should find a new leader in 2024 and move on.
At various points, Barr refers to Trump as “puerile” and bemoans his “frequent pettiness and overly contentious style.” He assures us that “it took an ungodly amount of energy and blood to keep [Trump] on track.” He also notes that Trump treated people as “utensils” and “often seemed to have little regard for the accuracy of his statements.” But he still thinks Trump more trustworthy than the media, who come in for some of Barr’s most ferocious denunciations.
And Barr also maintains that Trump could have produced “more of a constructive, problem-solving style of government” if only he had been shown “a modicum of good faith on the other side.”
Barr says he thinks Trump has “a deep intuitive appreciation of the importance of religion in the health of our nation” and that he “saw himself defending the constitutional order and traditional American values from the increasingly totalitarian attacks of the radical wing of the Democratic Party.”
So there is plenty of damnation to go around in One Damn Thing After Another, much of it aimed at the tenor and tone of contemporary American culture. In high dudgeon, he insists the framers believed democracy could only work in a country that was “religious and moral” — and Barr clearly does not believe it can be truly moral without being religious.
Leaving the ship he volunteered to serve
Barr left the administration in that dark and stormy period after the November 2020 election, when Trump was enlisting every element of the government that he could in his war on the election results. Barr recounts that told him serious FBI and Justice Department efforts to find evidence of substantial fraud had found none. Trump had simply lost.
Trump was angry at this, but the tie between the two men was really torn when Barr said the same thing to the Associated Press. Meeting with the president thereafter, Barr says he offered to resign and Trump slapped the table as he shouted: “Accepted.” Barr says he left the White House that day only to be hailed in the driveway and dragged back by two of Trump’s top aides. Some days later, Barr’s resignation was negotiated and accepted.
Barr had come to the top job at Justice after confirmation in early 2019, shortly after Trump had fired his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, a former senator from Alabama. Sessions, who had been the first senator to endorse Trump in 2015, displeased him when he would not fire or interfere with then Special Counsel Robert Mueller, a former FBI director appointed to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Barr entered this fray while still a private citizen. He did it by sending a 19-page memo to the Justice Department in June 2018 excoriating the Russia probe and the appointment of a special counsel. But this private memo got around because Barr was not just another retired lawyer — he had been attorney general in an earlier Republican administration. The unusual memo struck more than a few observers as a job application, and that fall Trump fired Sessions and appointed Barr in his place.
Shortly thereafter, Mueller completed his report and filed it with Barr, as the terms of his appointment required. That enabled Barr to characterize the report before the media or anyone else had seen it, and he took that opportunity to put his own spin on two years of work by Mueller and his team.
Mueller’s report had voluminous evidence of Russian interference and numerous instances of what appeared to be obstruction of justice on the part of the president. But it did not find evidence of an indictable criminal conspiracy between the Russians and the Trump campaign. Barr read this as essentially an exoneration. Trump called it “a total exoneration.”
Mueller would soon object to Barr’s characterization, saying it “did not fully capture the context, nature and substance” of the investigation. And when asked whether the president had committed a crime, Mueller repeatedly noted that Justice Department policy dating back to the 1970s prevented him from even considering a criminal charge against the president while in office.
Barr weathered months of controversy over his handling of the Russia matter, which in this memoir he continues to call “the Russia hoax.” He also defends Trump’s handling of the 2019 Ukraine episode that led to his first impeachment. Trump had seemingly withheld military aid to Ukraine to induce that country to investigate some of Trump’s political enemies, including future opponent Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
But even Barr’s dogged defense of Trump in both of those cases does not insulate him against Trump’s heat on a related matter. Trump and his acolytes are incensed — even now — at the pace and product of an investigation into the FBI’s behavior at the start of the Russia probe. Barr had appointed a U.S. attorney to look into it all in 2019, and Trump and many in the conservative media wanted its results prior to the 2020 election.
Throughout his book, Barr walks the line between the various warring factions with the moves of highly skilled lawyer. He is a master of reading the law, finding what he needs in it, and presenting his interpretation as the obviously correct one.
We also see him often as the legal rhetorician, parsing words carefully to fit his purpose. For example he holds Trump “responsible” for the crowd that assaulted the Capitol on Jan. 6 but did not “incite” them, so there is no cause to indict the former president.
Of course, this mindset, this show of lawyerly care and precision, will only further infuriate the partisans on either side who simply want him to smite the enemy.
Not just ‘another Trump book’
Taking a step back, this is not merely “another Trump book,” although Trump is a recurring and animating presence. Nor is it merely a screed against Barr’s own adversaries (although large portions of it are).
This is, rather, a Barr book. It is an autobiography with facets, including his recollections of the immigrant hardships of his grandparents, the academic careers of his parents and his own childhood devotion to the bagpipes. Barr clearly regards it as an American success story.
But the feelgood portions of the book give way to more contentious parts of Barr’s personal history. These include his bitter retelling of the campus protests that disrupted his student days at Columbia University in the late 1960s. Barr joined a group of students physically resisting the Vietnam-war protestors who occupied campus buildings in 1968. This is clearly a seminal moment in developing his political persona and determining his attitudes.
At one point, when a campus confrontation becomes a melee, Barr recalls being in the fight but “situated to the rear of a big football player who performed with such amazing proficiency that I never had to do anything but shove people.”
That image may linger in the reader’s mind as a metaphor as Barr thrashes and snarls his way through his personal history.
A successful career
Barr relates how he graduated with a high number in the draft lottery and then joined the CIA in the 1970s. Working for the agency while he goes to law school, Barr gets to know its new director, George H.W. Bush. A few years later, Bush will be vice president; and in 1991, as president, Bush will appoint Barr attorney general when he is still just 41.
Barr recalls his association with Bush several times in this memoir, not only defending him but declaring him a kind of martyr in the media wars, “exposed to a savage and unrelenting carpet bombing by the press — a campaign based on gross distortions and outright lies.”
When Barr turns to Trump, we get a different mix of loyalty, defensiveness and rancor. His frustration stems from a view that Trump was, like Shakespeare’s King Lear, “more sinned against than sinning.” But while Barr espouses that view, many readers will no doubt focus on the sins.
Barr is perhaps most convincing when he details how Trump’s misguided and constant focus on his own grievances has cost his party good candidates and essential momentum in recent years, and in the current moment, and potentially for years to come.