I can’t decide if he’s in on the kabuki being performed by Barr and Trump and just playing his part with this commentary or if he really doesn’t see that it’s kabuki.
I lean towards believing that he’s being sincere. For Dobbs, the daily mandate is straightforward: Attack the president’s critics, whoever they may be and without regard for what the substance of the criticism is. Barr criticized Trump yesterday, ergo Barr is the target even though his DOJ just intervened not once but twice in the past two weeks to request leniency for already-convicted cronies Mike Flynn and Roger Stone.
In MAGAland, your standing is only as secure as what you’ve done for the president that day.
Lou Dobbs attacks Bill Barr, suggests he's part of the "deep state," calls the Justice Department "rancid, corrupt" pic.twitter.com/PzjnieGrlK
— Andrew Lawrence (@ndrew_lawrence) February 14, 2020
Last night the White House put out this uncharacteristically serene take on Barr’s interview with ABC, deepening the suspicions that Barr’s “rebuke” of Trump was done with the president’s knowledge or consent in order to restore plausible deniability to the idea that Barr fixed Stone’s and Flynn’s sentences as a political favor to Trump.
JUST IN: WH reax to Barr interview 👀 pic.twitter.com/vURAvPscBq
— Paula Reid (@PaulaReidCBS) February 13, 2020
Trump himself chimed in this morning, sounding slightly more peevish but still subdued:
“The President has never asked me to do anything in a criminal case.” A.G. Barr This doesn’t mean that I do not have, as President, the legal right to do so, I do, but I have so far chosen not to!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 14, 2020
That’s not inconsistent with plausible deniability either: “I could have intervened — but didn’t.” I believe him, though, when he says that he didn’t order Barr to wade into the Flynn and Stone cases. He shouldn’t need to. The only reason Barr is Attorney General to begin with is because Jeff Sessions refused to protect the president politically from the Russiagate probe, recusing himself instead of riding herd on it. From the beginning — even before he was AG — Barr has aligned himself with Trump’s interests in Russiagate, writing a memo to the DOJ as a lawyer in private practice arguing that Trump couldn’t be guilty of obstruction of justice as president, then accusing the FBI of “spying” on the Trump campaign during testimony long before the Horowitz report was finished, then becoming unusually hands-on in assisting John Durham’s investigation of the Russiagate process. Barr doesn’t have to be formally instructed at this point that Trump pals convicted in the Russiagate matter should be given a break. He knows what his job is.
Having said that, he also can’t oversee a Department whose employees are resigning left and right in protest over political interference by the AG on the White House’s behalf. WaPo says Barr has found Trump’s tweeting about open criminal cases unhelpful for some time now:
People close to Barr said that in recent months he has become increasingly frustrated with Trump’s tweets about the Justice Department. The president, they said, seemed not only to be undercutting his own political momentum but also to be fostering doubts about the department’s independence. Trump’s tweet complaining that he believed his friend was being treated unfairly proved something of a last straw, they said, because it was so damaging to morale at the department.
Barr was comfortable not being universally loved by career employees, but he felt the tweet Tuesday raised a bigger problem, giving people reason to wonder whether the department had been corrupted by political influence and decided he could no longer remain silent about the president’s public denunciations, these people said.
The real point of contention between them, though, is allegedly the fact that Trump’s enemies — including and especially James Comey — haven’t been criminally charged with anything. Durham may end up having something to say about that eventually but WaPo claims Trump went ballistic when the DOJ refused to charge Comey for leaking (“lawyers quickly determined it was not a close call and did not seek to build a case”) and that his anger grew after the Huber investigation found nothing indictable when investigating Hillary Clinton for corruption. What Trump really wants, supposedly, is to see his antagonists punished more so than his allies given leniency. Barr’s problem is that there’s only so much he can do to prosecute Comey, McCabe, etc. He can throw his weight around to aid Durham in gathering evidence but in the end the evidence is either there or it isn’t. Trump’s not going to be mollified either if the DOJ gives it the ol’ college try by charging Comey and then a jury deliberates for an hour before acquitting him. And Barr would be in great ethical peril if his deputies looked at the evidence, saw nothing that would justify a conviction, and he insisted that they charge Comey anyway. All it would take is one deputy to talk and we’d have a scandal that dwarfed the Ukraine business.
So Barr’s hands are tied on prosecutions, pending Durham’s conclusions — but what he can certainly do for the president in the meantime is make sure that Flynn and Stone get light sentences. It’d be easier for him if the president would shut up about it, though. “[E]ven the Trump Justice Department needs the expensive drapery of the pretense of legal reasoning,” as David Frum put it. “When the president insists on yanking that drapery aside day after day on Twitter and television, the reality of what is going on becomes too embarrassing even for Barr to endure.”
Exit question: Are House Democrats about to subpoena the four prosecutors on the Stone case who just withdrew in protest? Greg Sargent of WaPo says Democratic staffers are talking about it. They’d better get cracking, as the White House is destined to claim executive privilege in blocking that testimony and forcing the matter into court.