Dear Commons Community,
Former Attorney General is making the media rounds promoting his new book, One Damn Thing After Another: Memoirs of an Attorney General. Last night I watched his one-hour interview (see highlights above) with NBC’s Lester Holt where he promoted his book and insisted that he was not a toady for President Trump. He discussed Robert Mueller, the 2020 election, his resignation as attorney general, etc. He equivocated for most of his responses to Holt. Below is a review of his book by Jeffrey Toobin in which the interview with Holt is mentioned.
We keep getting these insider memoirs from former Trump appointees and aides. I wish more of them spoke up in public during their service to the country. Bottom line – Barr and most of them were toadies!
The New York Times
William P. Barr’s Good Donald Trump and Bad Donald Trump
By Jeffrey Toobin
March 5, 2022
ONE DAMN THING AFTER ANOTHER
Memoirs of an Attorney General
By William P. Barr
It’s a rare Washington memoir that makes you gasp in the very second sentence. Here’s the first sentence from William P. Barr’s “One Damn Thing After Another,” an account of his two turns as attorney general: “The first day of December 2020, almost a month after the presidential election, was gray and rainy.” Indeed it was. Here’s the second: “That afternoon, the president, struggling to come to terms with the election result, had heard I was at the White House. …” Uh, “struggling to come to terms with”? Not exactly. How about “struggling to overturn the election he just lost” or “struggling to subvert the will of the voters”? Maybe “struggling to undermine American democracy.”
Such opening vignettes serve a venerable purpose in the Washington memoir genre: to show the hero speaking truth to power. Barr had just told a reporter that the Justice Department had “not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election.” This enraged the president. “You must hate Trump,” Trump told Barr. “You would only do this if you hate Trump.” But Barr stood his ground. He repeated that his team had found no fraud in the election results. (This is because there was none.) By the end of the book, Barr uses the election controversy as a vehicle for a novel interpretation of the Trump presidency: Everything was great until Election Day, 2020. As Barr puts it, “In the final months of his administration, Trump cared only about one thing: himself. Country and principle took second place.” For Barr, it was as if this great president experienced a sudden personality transplant. “After the election,” Barr writes, “he was beyond restraint. He would only listen to a few sycophants who told him what he wanted to hear. Reasoning with him was hopeless.”
The heart of “One Damn Thing After Another” concerns the earlier days of Trump’s presidency when, apparently, “country and principle” took first place. In his December confrontation with Trump, Barr recalls a comment that may be more revealing than he intends: “‘No, Mr. President, I don’t hate you,’ I said. ‘You know I sacrificed a lot personally to come in to help you when I thought you were being wronged.’”
This, as the rest of the book makes clear, is the real reason Barr came out of a comfortable retirement in early 2019 to serve as Jeff Sessions’s successor as attorney general. Barr — who thought Trump was “being wronged” by the investigation into the 2016 election led by Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel — wanted to come to Trump’s defense. Barr refers to the allegations that Trump colluded with the Russians in the lead-up to the election as, variously, the “Russiagate lunacy,” the “bogus Russiagate scandal,” “the biggest political injustice in our history” and the “Russiagate nonsense” (twice). Barr was as good as his word and sought to undermine Mueller and protect Trump at every opportunity. As Barr reveals in his book, Trump first asked him to serve on his defense team, but Barr later figured he could do more good for the president as attorney general. He was right.
Throughout, Barr affects a quasi-paternal tone when discussing Trump, as if the president were a naughty but good-hearted adolescent. When Trump says repeatedly that he fired the F.B.I. director James Comey because of the Russia investigation, Barr spins it as, “Unfortunately, President Trump exacerbated things himself with his clumsy miscues, notably making imprecise comments in an interview with NBC News’s Lester Holt and joking around with the Russian foreign minister and ambassador the day after firing Comey.” The just-joking defense is a favorite for Barr, as it is for the former president. In a strikingly humorless book, there is one “funny” line from Trump: “‘Do you know what the secret is of a really good tweet?’ he asked, looking at each of us one by one. We all looked blank. ‘Just the right amount of crazy,’ he said.” (Rest assured that Barr says the president spoke “playfully.”)
During his confirmation hearing, Barr promised to make Mueller’s report public — and he contrived to do so in the most helpful way for the president. In the key part of the report, concerning possible obstruction of justice by Trump (like firing Comey to interfere with the Russia investigation), Mueller said he was bound by Justice Department policy barring indictments of sitting presidents. So, instead of just releasing the report as he had promised, Barr took it upon himself to decide whether Trump could be charged with obstruction of justice. Barr “cleared the decks to work long into the night and over the weekend, studying the report. I wanted to come to a decision on obstruction.” And then, mirabile dictu, Barr concluded that the president had not violated the law, and wrote a letter to that effect. When the Justice Department got around to releasing the actual report several weeks later, it became apparent that the evidence against Trump was more incriminating than Barr let on, but by that point the attorney general had succeeded in shaping the story to the president’s great advantage.
Barr portrays Mueller, a former colleague and friend from their service in the George H W. Bush administration, as a feeble old man pushed around by liberals on his staff. To thwart them, Barr took extraordinary steps to trash Mueller’s work. On the eve of the sentencing of Roger Stone, Trump’s longtime political adviser, for obstruction of justice, Barr overruled the prosecutors and asked for a lighter sentence: “While he should not be treated any better than others because he was an associate of the president’s, he also should not be treated much worse than others.” In fact, Stone was being sentenced pursuant to guidelines that apply in all cases, but in this one and only instance, Barr decided to intervene.
Even more dramatic was Barr’s intercession on behalf of Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the F.B.I. Prodded by Flynn’s attorney, Sidney Powell, who later emerged as a principal conspiracy theorist in the post-2020 election period, Barr not only allowed Flynn to revoke his guilty plea but then dismissed the case altogether. “I concluded that the handling of the Flynn matter by the F.B.I. had been an abuse of power that no responsible A.G. could let stand,” he writes. Suffice it to say that none of the thousands of other cases brought by the Justice Department during Barr’s tenure received this kind of high-level attention and mercy; moreover, it was rare, and perhaps even unprecedented, for the department to dismiss a case in which the defendant pleaded guilty.
The only scalps Barr wanted were of those in the F.B.I. who started the Russia investigation in the first place. He writes, “I started thinking seriously about how best to get to the bottom of the matter that really required investigation: How did the phony Russiagate scandal get going, and why did the F.B.I. leadership handle the matter in such an inexplicable and heavy-handed way?” He appointed a federal prosecutor named John Durham to lead this probe, which has now been going on longer than the Mueller investigation, with little to show for it.
“One Damn Thing After Another” begins with a fond evocation of Barr’s childhood in a conservative family nestled in the liberal enclave surrounding Columbia University in New York City. His mother was Catholic, and his father Jewish (though he later converted to Catholicism), and Barr gives a lovely description of his elementary school education at the local Corpus Christi Church. (George Carlin went there too. Go figure.) Barr went on to Horace Mann and then Columbia, where he developed an interest in China. After college, he worked briefly at the C.I.A. while attending night law school, where he excelled. He moved up the ranks in the Justice Department until the first President Bush made him attorney general, at 41, in 1991. He was a largely nonideological figure, mostly preoccupied, as many were in those days, with getting surging crime rates under control.
The next quarter-century brought Barr great financial rewards as the top lawyer for the company that, in a merger, became Verizon. More to the point, it brought a hardening of his political views. Barr has a lot to say about the modern world, but the gist is that he’s against it. While attorney general under Trump, he dabbled as a culture warrior, and in his memoir he lets the missiles fly.
“Now we see a mounting effort to affirmatively indoctrinate children with the secular progressive belief system — a new official secular ideology.” Critical race theory “is, at bottom, essentially the materialist philosophy of Marxism, substituting racial antagonism for class antagonism.” On crime: “The left’s ‘root causes’ mantra is really an excuse to do nothing.” (Barr’s only complaint about mass incarceration is that it isn’t mass enough.) Barr loathes Democrats: President Obama, a “left-wing agitator, … throttled the economy, degraded the culture and frittered away U.S. strength and credibility in foreign affairs.” (Barr likes Obama better than Hillary Clinton.) Overall, his views reflect the party line at Fox News, which, curiously, he does not mention in several jeremiads about left-wing domination of the news media.
Barr is obviously too smart to miss what was in front of him in the White House. He says Trump is “prone to bluster and exaggeration.” His behavior with regard to Ukraine was “idiotic beyond belief.” Trump’s “rhetorical skills, while potent within a very narrow range, are hopelessly ineffective on questions requiring subtle distinctions.” Indeed, by the end, Barr concludes that “Donald Trump has shown he has neither the temperament nor persuasive powers to provide the kind of positive leadership that is needed.”
Barr’s odd theory about Good Trump turning into Bad Trump may have more to do with his feelings about Democrats than with the president he served. “I am under no illusion about who is responsible for dividing the country, embittering our politics and weakening and demoralizing our nation,” he writes. “It is the progressive left and their increasingly totalitarian ideals.” In a way, it’s the highest praise Barr can offer Trump: He had the right enemies.