William Barr Gave Trump the Kavanaugh Defense

The Republican excuse machine for powerful men.

William Barr, Donald Trump, and Brett Kavanaugh.
William Barr, Donald Trump, and Brett Kavanaugh. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images; Tom Brenner/Getty Images; Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

According to the attorney general of the United States, we Americans should be thanking President Donald J. Trump—who admitted on national television that he fired FBI Director James Comey because of “this Russia thing”—for his probity and transparency during this ordeal. In firm, composed, reassuring tones, William Barr pointed out how much the White House “had voluntarily cooperated with the special counsel”—conveniently omitting the many times Trump called the investigation a witch hunt, rage-tweeted about “presidential harassment,” called Robert Mueller’s team “angry Democrats” despite the special counsel being a longtime registered Republican, refused to grant an interview, and ordered that Mueller be fired. Barr reframed this conduct as “voluntary” cooperation, baldly testing whether the public will believe what he says over what it has seen with its own eyes. The president, meanwhile, responded to this favorable tribute by tweeting his victory as a Game of Thrones meme. This last example is a distressingly apt summary of the events of Thursday morning: In Barr’s hands, the United States Department of Justice has devolved into slobbering fan service.

In Barr’s summary of events, Trump wasn’t just innocent but wronged—a persecuted party whose injudicious actions could be chalked up to distress at being falsely accused. Sound familiar? It’s not a bad public relations strategy: It worked for Brett Kavanaugh. His extraordinary tantrum during his Senate Judiciary Committee hearing was rationalized by defenders as the understandable excess of a tormented man. No lawyer could have come up with a better defense for the president, anyway. As Fox News’ Chris Wallace characterized Barr’s press conference, the attorney general was essentially “acting as the counselor for the defense, the counselor for the president … talking about his motives, his emotions.” And just like Kavanaugh, Barr took his stage knowing he was performing for an audience of one.

And so, the nation whose elections were targeted and attacked by a foreign adversary (whose leader Trump constantly praises) was instructed, by its own attorney general, to forget its troubles and sympathize with the man who openly asked Russia to hack his opponent’s emails. Barr, no fool, understands that he has a challenging client. “In assessing the president’s actions discussed in the report, it is important to bear in mind the context,” he intoned. That context turned out to be that Trump was upset. “Federal agents and prosecutors were scrutinizing his conduct before and after taking office, and the conduct of some of his associates,” Barr stated, presenting this as a hardship. Worse still, “there was relentless speculation in the news media about the president’s personal culpability.” Our attorney general wishes us to understand that this, too, was unfair. That Michael Flynn, the man Trump had chosen to be America’s national security adviser, was an unregistered foreign agent who had acted on behalf of a foreign government was none of America’s concern. Neither was Trump’s subsequent defense of the man, long after his firing, nor his request for Comey to let it go. It wasn’t the conduct that was unwarranted and inappropriate but the scrutiny of that conduct. It is we—the news media and the American people—who ought to think long and hard about What We’ve Done.

If this all feels faintly familiar—this business of watching Republican men arrange a bizarrely structured public event to huffily defend an embattled candidate—you may be having Kavanaugh flashbacks. You’ll recall that there, too, the Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee (who came up with the structure for the hearings) ran interference instead of investigating and complained about the process they themselves had devised. “This is the most unethical sham since I’ve been in politics, and if you really wanted to know the truth, you sure as hell wouldn’t have done what you’ve done to this guy!” Lindsey Graham screamed. Kavanaugh, like Trump, was the victim. The Republican members made a show of praising their embattled, out-of-control nominee for his restraint and flooded him with expressions of sympathy. A man who has already been vested with power and authority and gotten the imprimatur of the ruling class ought not to be scrutinized or second-guessed; when he is, the fury he feels at the indignity of being treated this way isn’t just fair—it’s exonerating. His anger testifies not to his entitlement but to his innocence.

“There is substantial evidence,” Barr continued, “to show that the president was frustrated and angered by his sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents and fueled by illegal leaks.” This was a remarkable sentence on a remarkable day. The view that the investigation was “propelled by [Trump’s] political opponents” is one Barr presumably doesn’t hold because it’s patently absurd: Mueller was not Trump’s political opponent. Neither was Jeff Sessions, who recused himself. Neither was Rod Rosenstein, who oversaw Mueller’s work. There are two options, then. The first and less likely option is that Barr agrees with Trump about something that’s demonstrably untrue. The second is that, by so fulsomely voicing Trump’s grievances, what Barr is implicitly saying is that Trump’s ludicrously unmoored but “sincere” self-pity somehow mitigates his subsequent behavior.

According to Barr, the “substantial evidence” of Trump’s frustration and anger found in the report—an odd citation on its own, since no report was needed to gather evidence of the president’s displeasure—explains his attempts to interfere with the investigation. Even though those attempts weren’t successful. “The president took no act that, in fact, deprived the special counsel of the documents and witnesses necessary to complete his investigation,” Barr said. So much relies on that little “in fact,” which handily omits that Trump did try to derail the investigation but appears to have failed. Barr interprets this differently: Trump’s failure to keep things from the special counsel is “evidence of noncorrupt motives,” he says, and “weighs heavily against any allegation that the president had a corrupt intent to obstruct the investigation.” The president was just frustrated, is all. For good reason.

So was Barr, for that matter, during that very brief Q&A after his curious performance. It’s always interesting to watch a public servant act put-upon and aggrieved when asked to face the public he serves. Barr was no exception. He seemed calm enough during his speech, but the strain started to show as the questions came. “I’m here to discuss my response to that report and my decision, entirely discretionary to make it public, since these reports are not supposed to be made public,” Barr said to a reporter who asked him why Mueller wasn’t present. The message was aggressive and clear: You have no right to this. You ought to be grateful I’m letting you see it at all. Asked about his evident advocacy for the president, Barr admitted why he’d said that weird thing about the report’s “evidence” of Trump’s displeasure—he thought attributing it to the report gave him a veneer of objectivity. “The statements about his sincere beliefs are recognized in the report,” he said when asked what he would say to people who were concerned he was protecting the president. “There was substantial evidence for that, so I’m not sure what your basis is for saying that I am being generous to the president.” (As if anyone were asking him if it was true Trump was upset.) And when a reporter asked, “Is it impropriety to come out and what it appears to be spinning the report before the public has a chance to read it?” he walked away.

The public, by Barr’s reckoning, is owed less and the president is owed more. For Barr, the president’s kicking and screaming over an investigation without succeeding in stopping it counts as “voluntary cooperation.” For Barr, the president reviewing a report of his own misconduct in advance counts as not asserting privilege. And for Barr, scrutiny of the president counts as putting an unjust burden on him.

To the public, the message is that Trump’s “sincere beliefs”—his victim complex, especially—should matter legally. These may matter even more than the actual facts. In Barr’s hands, Trump’s volatility is narrated as not just understandable but mitigating. It is proof of his victimhood. That’s the soft rotten core of this bizarre political argument. The feelings of men like Trump, and Kavanaugh, and Barr—their entitlement, their anger, their grievance, their resentment, their certainty that they are owed—will determine the future for as long as they have power. It’s certainly determined our present.

People governed by narcissistic self-regard tend to work in each other’s interest, not the nation’s, all while resenting the public’s rank ingratitude and wallowing in self-pity. Barr’s press conference tried to harness the Mueller report into a story about Trump’s forbearance and transparency as he endured this grim ordeal. He only succeeded at demonstrating that, under Barr’s leadership, the Department of Justice, like so many of our institutions, appears to be serving at the exclusive pleasure of the president and his men. But not to worry: Despite how angry you’ve made them, they can still be trusted to do the right thing, on their schedule, per their definitions, and depending on how they feel.