Given his tendency to employ the colorful over the competent, it’s slightly surprising that Donald Trump’s taste in attorneys general has bypassed loudmouths like Rudy Giuliani in favor of small, precise men. Both Jeff Sessions and William Barr are notable for their unintimidating demeanor and for the skill with which they couch extreme ideology in the garb of conventional, calm lawyering. Perhaps this is the kind of person the president believes will accept his documented efforts to dictate terms to the Department of Justice. Or maybe his tendency to view the attorney general as his own personal lawyer, rather than America’s top law enforcement officer, led him to choose a type he thought he could dominate. It’s no secret that Trump considered Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the Mueller probe—ethically, the bare minimum—a personal betrayal. (Trump felt the attorney general should have protected him, and Sessions’ failure to do so is one reason he’s no longer in the role.) In Barr, Trump has found an attorney general with hoary Republican bona fides who accepts Trump’s view and has developed a theory according to which Trump’s feelings not only matter more than the law, but should dictate it. Barr’s ideology is a fit, and so—for a TV president who prizes style over substance—is his stagecraft.
Though stolid and undramatic, William Barr has proven himself an eager finger-pointer (singling out Rod Rosenstein, Robert Mueller, the media, and Trump’s opponents for particular blame) and an able advocate for the agitated president. That’s not his role, of course—or it shouldn’t be—but Barr keeps slipping into outright advocacy for the man he was theoretically supposed to consider indicting. Appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday to answer questions about the Mueller report, Barr made his allegiances obvious. Asked about Trump’s remarks excoriating people who “flip” on the wrongdoers above them, Barr took the remarkable step of ventriloquizing the president’s defense. “I think what the president’s lawyers would say,” he said (as if he weren’t acting as one), “is that the president’s statements about flipping are quite clear and express and uniformly the same, which is by ‘flipping,’ he meant succumbing to pressure on unrelated cases to lie and compose in order to get lenient treatment.” (Carried away by this role-playing, Barr would eventually go on to ventriloquize not only Trump’s lawyers, but Trump himself.)
Barr isn’t only there to translate Trump’s mafia-speak into legitimate legalese. The attorney general, who has a long history of doing all he can to maximize executive power, appears to be on a mission to make presidents even more legally untouchable than they already are. His strategy isn’t confrontational; it’s staid in ways that camouflage the extraordinary deference he’s showing to the president’s moods. Barr has already argued that making a determination of corrupt intent requires a deep and sympathetic study of the president’s grievances. He accordingly channels the president’s sulks just as he explains his slang: Barr explained Trump was “frustrated and angered” by public concern that he might have done questionable things against the national interest—like invite the Russians to hack into Hillary Clinton’s emails, hire a compromised foreign agent as national security adviser, or give sensitive Israeli intelligence to the Russians. Barr’s calculus accords the president’s frustration so much legal weight that Trump’s “witch hunts” and “Angry Democrats” and dangled pardons and attempted firings of the special counsel are, all things considered, more than reasonable. By contrast, he characterizes public alarm over the aforementioned activities as not only unreasonable but evidence of how unfairly the president has been treated. “As he entered into office, and sought to perform his responsibilities as president, federal agents and prosecutors were scrutinizing his conduct before and after taking office, and the conduct of some of his associates,” Barr explained while defending the president’s outrage in his press conference before releasing the Mueller report. “At the same time, there was relentless speculation in the news media about the president’s personal culpability.”
If Barr extends to the president a therapist’s compassion, he seems to find Mueller, his longtime friend and colleague, both incomprehensible and incorrect. “I’m not really sure of his reasoning,” Barr said when he was asked whether he agreed with Mueller’s reasons, outlined in his report, for not offering a definite pronouncement on whether prosecution was appropriate. “I really could not recapitulate his analysis, which is one of the reasons in my March 24 letter I simply stated the fact that he did not reach a conclusion and didn’t try to put words in his mouth.” To sum up: Barr not only refused to publish the summaries Mueller himself wrote for the public, but he also wrote up such a misleading summary that the famously taciturn special counsel formally objected, asking again that his own summaries be released. And then, having substituted his own text for Mueller’s, Barr demurely suggested he hadn’t wanted to put words in Mueller’s mouth. This priggish sleight of hand is Barr’s wheelhouse. He launders impropriety with a functionary’s demeanor and a spin doctor’s acumen.
In Wednesday’s hearing, Barr’s professional reserve became a kind of smoke screen for repeated swipes at the special counsel. He suggested, for instance, that Mueller should have “pulled up” (whatever that means) if he thought he wasn’t in a position to pronounce: “I think that if he felt that he shouldn’t go down the path of making a traditional prosecutive decision, he shouldn’t have. That was the time to pull up.” This curious statement omits Mueller’s clear explanation that his decision not to charge was not because prosecution wasn’t appropriate, but because it wasn’t up to him to make the next move. The next move, Mueller clearly notes, is up to Congress. Barr disagrees with this. “I’m the captain,” he said of the report. “This is my baby.”
That phrasing was pretty weird, but on the whole, Barr’s conduct was calm, courteous, and slightly condescending. It was professional and meant to reassure. He framed extraordinary claims as if they were simple common sense, peppering his remarks with obviouslys and looking for all the world like the put-upon bureaucrat. He would not concede that the president’s conduct was concerning or wrong or unbefitting, repeatedly insisting that it was “constitutional.” He characterized concerns about Russian efforts to compromise Trump’s campaign as overblown while noting that the phenomenon of foreign governments targeting Americans is rather commonplace, even generic. Under duress, he admitted that a presidential campaign should call the FBI if thus approached, but seemed unwilling to condemn or even disapprove of Trump’s campaign for failing to do so.
Even Barr’s petty moments were muted. Yes, he called Mueller’s letter “snitty,” but spared Mueller the insult by proposing that someone else had written it. (This sly little suggestion does double work, of course: It supports his earlier claim that he didn’t know what Mueller thought. Anyone on his staff might have written that letter!) When Sen. Richard Blumenthal observed that Mueller’s letter was a truly exceptional intervention—“an extraordinary act, a career prosecutor rebuking the attorney general of the United States, memorializing it in writing, right? I know of no other instance of that happening”—a nettled Barr replied pedantically: “Well, I don’t consider Bob at this stage a career prosecutor. He’s had a career as a prosecutor.”
This level of self-control, unusual in Trump’s circles, has advantages. Barr’s composure was an inverse function of the legal acrobatics he was attempting: He posits, for instance, that the investigation was illegitimate because the president wasn’t indicted. It follows that obstruction is impossible! Since Mueller didn’t pronounce on the president’s criminality, anything the president did to stop the inquiry was fair (Barr likes the phrase “the exercise of his constitutional duties”). This is the kind of wackadoodle argument one has to read several times through in order to absorb its astonishing implications; it seems to suggest that law enforcement may only pursue inquiries it knows to be true while ignoring that the pursuit is how we discover truth. This legal theory of time travel is presented as sensible and self-evident.
It’s boring to blame our reality TV president for nudging the government toward reality TV shenanigans, but we work with the gifts we have. Inflammatory theatrics are Trump’s one proven skill—he likes to say his picks are “straight out of central casting.” He’s not wrong: They have tended to be larger-than-life and unconcerned about things like respectability (Anthony Scaramucci, Steve Bannon, Omarosa). Even Trump acolytes who care about such things—like Brett Kavanaugh, or the Lindsey Graham of yore—have sacrificed their probity to put on the kind of big angry show Trump loves. But in William Barr, Trump has found a new sort of character, to fill a new sort of need.
Reality TV is famously scripted to maximize drama. The fights and tantrums tend to work if you squint, even if you know they’re manufactured. They attract an audience. But depending on what you’re going for, sometimes you don’t want too much attention. If you want a clean way to make the really giant twists seem boring, even routine, what you need is a drama minimizer: someone who can pass off chaos as bureaucracy. Or obstruction as constitutional duty. Or one man’s feelings as American law. For that, Donald Trump has William Barr.