When this Washington Post scoop dropped last night, it looked like good news … for Bill Barr, anyway. The Attorney General has been under fire from Democrats ever since he accepted the appointment but especially since the release of his summary of the Robert Mueller report. Despite the fact that Barr announced his intention to release the whole report and did so three weeks later, Democrats and some media outlets accused Barr of trying to mislead everyone about Mueller’s conclusions … which they have more or less abandoned anyway.
So when the Washington Post reported that Barr had essentially recused himself from holding a presser on Ukraine-Gate, the first thought would be that Democrats and the media would have to evince a strange new respect for the AG:
President Trump wanted Attorney General William P. Barr to hold a news conference declaring that the commander in chief had broken no laws during a phone call in which he pressed his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate a political rival, though Barr ultimately declined to do so, people familiar with the matter said.
The request from Trump traveled from the president to other White House officials and eventually to the Justice Department. The president has mentioned Barr’s demurral to associates in recent weeks, saying he wished Barr would have held the news conference, Trump advisers say.
In recent weeks, the Justice Department has sought some distance from the White House, particularly on matters relating to the burgeoning controversy over Trump’s dealings on Ukraine and the impeachment inquiry they sparked.
And indeed, the Post’s analyst and frequent Trump critic Aaron Blake channeled his inner Hall & Oates by noting that “Barr will do anything for Trump, but he won’t do that”:
There is plenty Barr and his Justice Department have been willing to do that, at the least, blurs the lines between an independent law enforcement agency and one that protects the president who appointed Barr. But we appear to have stumbled upon one thing Barr’s DOJ won’t do: Completely go to bat for Trump on the Ukraine controversy. …
But that defense requires that the rough transcript itself not be viewed as problematic. And even Barr — whose views of presidential authority are remarkably broad and who would seem a prime candidate to be able justify such a news conference to himself — isn’t willing to go that far.
Oddly, the DoJ’s decision to arrest two of Rudy Giuliani’s associates and reportedly make Giuliani himself the subject of a criminal investigation didn’t cause this kind of reassessment before now. That seems a lot more important to Trump’s legal health than a presser or two.
Alas, Donald Trump regrets to inform us all that the story was “MADE UP” and that “we don’t have freedom of the press,” either. Cancel Barr’s Beltway cocktail party RSVPs!
There were sources, only they were unnamed in the article, which makes this a credibility contest. Neither side comes out well on that criterion, but it seems odd that Trump would have remained so quiet about his AG in such a situation. When Jeff Sessions made the decision to recuse himself from the Russia-collusion probe after his (unremarkable, as it turned out) contact with Sergei Kislyak during the campaign arguably made him a potential fact witness in it, Trump went absolutely ballistic — for the next eighteen months. Sessions has only now opened the door to his political bunker to check on the radiation from the fallout. And Sessions was more MAGA on his most Beltwayish day than Barr has ever been.
If Barr really refused to publicly defend Trump after a direct request from his boss, does anyone believe that Trump wouldn’t have been all over Twitter complaining about this AG the same way he did about Sessions?
The truth is probably somewhere in between and more prosaic. It would not have been unusual for the political side of the White House to brainstorm on messaging in a PR crisis, and perhaps the idea of a Barr presser got spitballed at some point. Trump and his team have advanced two arguments — one is that the call was “perfect,” and the other is that even the House allegations would involve no violation of the law. Barr could speak to the legal issues of the latter, perhaps, but it’s not Justice’s role to discuss why they open or don’t open investigations (James Comey notwithstanding), which Barr would have quickly explained. That kind of public defense would be the responsibility of Trump’s legal team, not an AG — which would have been made apparent long before anyone seriously considered such a move, let alone asked Barr to do it.
So much for strange new respect for Barr, but don’t worry — he’s been doing a pretty good job of earning normal and continuous respect all along.
Update: Trump’s still unhappy about this story. He seems almost Jeff Sessions-level perturbed by it, for some reason:
I’ll keep an eye peeled for a Barr statement, which doesn’t appear extant at the moment, but this reaction seems over the top for the original story. It certainly didn’t make Trump look great, but it would have been less memorable than the reaction to it is now.