The initial reaction was possibly forgivable. Attorney General William Barr had used a sequence of words including “Trump” “tweet” and “impossible” that were, at least in the context of the world’s most sycophantic cabinet, surprisingly tough-sounding.
But on second thought — which shouldn’t have come much later than the first thought — what Barr said Thursday in his ABC News interview wasn’t really so much a criticism of his boss as a whine about how Trump’s tweets make it harder for him to publicly justify his outrageous enabling.
Here’s the seminal Barr quote:
I’m happy to say that, in fact the president has never asked me to do anything in a criminal case. However, to have public statements and tweets made about the department, about our people in the department, our men and women here, about cases pending in the department, and about judges before whom we have cases, make it impossible for me to do my job and to assure the courts and the prosecutors in the department that we’re doing our work with integrity.
And maybe it shouldn’t even have taken a second thought, because after reporters last spring were well and truly suckered – for weeks — by Barr’s innocent-sounding “summary” of Robert Mueller’s profoundly inculpatory findings, it should have been utterly clear to anyone paying attention that nothing Barr said should ever be taken on face value again.
Remember that? Washington Post media writer Margaret Sullivan coined the term Barr-Letter Syndrome to refer to “a reference to the way the mainstream press allowed Attorney General William P. Barr last spring to mischaracterize the findings of the Mueller report.”
And what Barr said can’t change the overwhelming evidence that he has been a dutiful enabler of Trump in every way imaginable, from investigating Trump’s inane conspiracy theories with gusto to looking the other way as the president blatantly abuses his power, to installing unqualified hacks to route around and interfere with career prosecutors throughout the department.
Barr is Trump’s front line in undermining equal protection under the law. Nothing Barr said in anyway indicated that he was not going to continue doing exactly that. All he complained about, really, was that Trump’s tweets were creating the public appearance that he was behaving in ways that he would rather be able to deny.
Earlier in the day, I wrote about how some political journalists were actually rising to the challenge, sounding the alarm about the danger Trump and Barr presented to the constitutional order.
Now suddenly the headlines were about Barr blasting the president.
But maybe they wouldn’t be so easily subverted. After all, there was plenty of time for our most influential news outlets to revise their initial interpretations. Twitter was alive with excellent advice — including some from the aforementioned Margaret Sullivan, whose warning was echoed by other august media figures:
My view too.
Actual Q: Is there *anything* in Barr’s history, even before current stint, to support idea that he might take an “institutionalist,” personally risky, defend-the-rules stand of principle? A la Romney’s speech last week?
I’m not aware of any.
— James Fallows (@JamesFallows) February 14, 2020
One word became the lightning rod of criticism regarding the Barr coverage. The word was “rebuke.”
New York Times reporter Katie Benner called it “an extraordinary rebuke of President Trump” in her lede. Washington Post reporters Devlin Barrett, Matt Zapotosky and Josh Dawsey called it a “remarkable public rebuke of the president.” Barr “rebuked” Trump, wrote CNN’s David Shortell.
But come on. Has Barr complained directly to Trump? Has he threatened to resign? Is his job truly “impossible”?
Or is it just that Trump’s tweets expose reality? On Twitter, it was obvious:
Former federal prosecutor Mimi Rocah:
I know everyone is like “OMG Bar is criticizing Trump!” but this just shows Barr doesn’t like Trump talking openly about what’s really going on – Barr helping out Trump’s buddy & making sure he doesn’t cooperate. Barr doesn’t need to be told what to do on Trump’s behalf. https://t.co/N96eg3hCRK
— Mimi Rocah (@Mimirocah1) February 13, 2020
Los Angeles Times reporter Chris Megerian:
The message here seems to be, “I’m already doing this job the way you would want, don’t make this any more difficult for us.” https://t.co/tpUWVnMgVf
— Chris Megerian (@ChrisMegerian) February 13, 2020
The Nation’s Jeet Heer:
To be clear: Barr's job is to engineer a cover-up. Trump's tweets make that impossible because they make clear a cover-up is happening. https://t.co/OlQFCGsN0i
— Jeet Heer (@HeerJeet) February 13, 2020
MSNBC anchor (and lawyer) Ari Melber:
Shorter Bill Barr:
I stand by intervening to help a convicted Trump adviser, but I wish Trump did not admit what we are doing on Twitter
— Ari Melber (@AriMelber) February 13, 2020
Lawfare editor Susan Hennessey:
This is absolutely nonsense theatrics and I don't buy if for one moment. Barr interfered in the Stone case for purely political reasons and Barr's sole problem is the inconvenience of Trump saying it out loud. https://t.co/rAVeMo9u9s
— Susan Hennessey (@Susan_Hennessey) February 13, 2020
Former Republican National Committee chair Michael Steele:
Slow your roll if you think Barr is breaking from Trump. This was a carefully staged message to cool down pissed off DOJ attys whom Barr undercut & to avoid any further internal strife. This message does not get sideways with Trump because he’s already done what Trump wanted. https://t.co/jYWYJFovpO
— Michael Steele (@MichaelSteele) February 14, 2020
Former Bill Clinton press secretary Joe Lockhart proposed a way to assess the extent of Barr’s “rebuke”:
There is a debate about Barr's motives and whether this was a real rebuke of the President. The tell here will be how Trump reacts. If he lashes out, those who argue Barr is being genuine may be right. If he's muted, the opposite. Everyone agrees Trump can't control himself.
— Joe Lockhart (@joelockhart) February 13, 2020
Minutes later, the White House said Trump didn’t seem to take it that way:
WH Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham says Trump wasn’t bothered by AG Barr’s comments. Says Trump has “full faith and confidence” in Barr to do his job and uphold the law. pic.twitter.com/ebhOezM8UR
— Katherine Faulders (@KFaulders) February 13, 2020
Indeed, on Friday morning, Trump was favorably tweet-quoting from the interview, while asserting that he certainly could tell Barr what to do if he felt like it.
“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
Those of us hitting refresh throughout the night and again in the morning — hoping that the editors of the Times and the Post and other outlets would accept the constructive criticism of their peers and revise their initial takes — were sorely disappointed .
Did they really continue to take Barr at his word? Or were they just too proud to admit they had been played?
Either way, game set and match to William Barr. Again.
Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter and author John McQuaid tweeted that “news orgs have not figured out how to cover high officials – whom they are accustomed to treating with deference (“Exclusive”?) – who are habitual, strategic liars and use respectful coverage to advance specious diversions.”
That’s exactly right.
As it happens, ABC News itself reported Barr’s comments more carefully than others, its headlines stating “Barr blasts Trump’s tweets” – not Trump himself. But Pierre Thomas, getting the rare sit-down, didn’t ask the right questions at all (as emptywheel blogger Marcy Wheeler pointed out), and set the unfortunate tone for the interview from the get-go by asking about “what appears to be at a minimum an appearance problem”.
Even Barr’s specific denial – that he was not operating on Trump’s implicit or explicit orders when he reversed career prosecutors’ sentencing recommendations for Trump pal Roger Stone, and that Trump has never given him orders about criminal matters – defies belief.
Here’s Rachel Maddow on Thursday night:
Let us not abandon our powers of reasoning and common sense. I mean here, plainly, despite the official lie that was rolled out today to try to alleviate this crisis — here, plainly, the attorney general intervened personally to do this most unusual once-in-a-lifetime thing for the president’s friend, because that guy was the president’s friend. And there is now broadcast on ABC News an official lie about that. But the truth is evident here.
There’s that old saying “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” But our elite political media gets fooled over and over again, and has no shame.