No doubt this exchange between NBC’s Pete Williams and William Barr disappointed some of Donald Trump’s followers — if not Trump himself. Williams pressed Barr on Trump’s comments on “Obamagate,” but the AG passed on commenting on “what the president, or Vice President Biden for that matter, say in their campaigns.” Barr added that, based on his “general idea” of John Durham’s investigation, “I don’t expect Mr. Durham’s work will lead to a criminal investigation of either [Obama or Biden]. Our potential on criminality,” Barr concluded, “is focused on others”:
Will that fly in the Oval Office?
— Undercover Huber (@JohnWHuber) May 18, 2020
The New York Times reported Barr’s remarks as a rebuke to Trump, which is, ah … one way to look at them. Is this a signal of strange new respect for Barr?
Attorney General William P. Barr dismissed President Trump’s attempts to rebrand the Russia investigation as a criminal plot engineered by former President Barack Obama, saying on Monday that he expected no charges against either Mr. Obama or former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. as a result of an investigation into how their administration handled Russian election interference.
“As long as I’m attorney general, the criminal justice system will not be used for partisan political ends,” Mr. Barr said during a news conference announcing that a Saudi gunman had been in communication with Al Qaeda before a deadly attack last year at a military base in Pensacola, Fla.
Mr. Barr said that John H. Durham, the federal prosecutor investigating how law enforcement and intelligence officials confronted Russia’s operations to meddle in the 2016 election, was examining some aspects of the case as potential crimes but that he was focused on other people, not Mr. Obama or Mr. Biden.
But Mr. Barr noted there was a difference between abusing power and violating the law, emphasizing as he has previously that he believes that law enforcement and intelligence officials unfairly targeted Mr. Trump as they sought to understand links between his campaign and Russia.
That seems like a very careful parsing of Barr’s full response. Without doubt, that captures one of Barr’s points pretty well, but it leaves out the context of “partisan political ends” in Barr’s answer. That point got explained by Barr in the next breath by characterizing Operation Crossfire Hurricane and the intelligence work associated with it as “advancing a false and utterly baseless Russia collusion narrative against the president.” Barr clearly had that “grave injustice” in mind, more than Trump’s comments on the issue, in his abhorrence of the DoJ being used for “partisan political ends.”
Basically, Barr has put forward his intent to reset the Department of Justice back to a non-political footing, which is itself an indictment of sorts of the Obama era. “The only way to break away from a dual system of justice,” Barr declared, “is to make sure that we scrupulously apply the single and proper standard of justice for everybody.” In Crossfire Hurricane, Barr said, “we saw two different standards of justice emerge — one that applied to President Trump and his associates, and one that applied to everyone else.” Barr’s predecessors in the DoJ, appointed by Obama, “abused … the proper investigative and prosecutive standards of the Department of Justice,” which is the scope of Durham’s investigation.
If that’s a rebuke to Trump, it’s only the mildest variety. In reality, this is one of the sharpest rebukes to Obama, Loretta Lynch, and James Comey yet from Barr about abuses of power and politicization within the DoJ. However, as Barr notes, not all abuses of power cross over into criminal conduct, a lesson the Supreme Court just reaffirmed in the Bridgegate case. Those require political accountability rather than prosecution, and Barr pledged to force the DoJ to firmly respect those boundaries. As such, Obama and Biden are almost certainly off the hook legally. Politically, they’re on their own.
Of course, not everyone will be that fortunate. Barr makes it clear that Durham’s focus is on the “criminality” of “others.” If Barr thinks that the DoJ can win a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt, perhaps we’ll find out who the “others” are. We can probably make a few educated guesses in the meantime, however.