Two months into his ill-begotten presidency, when Donald Trump flew into a temper tantrum over Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ insistence on recusing himself from overseeing the Russia investigation, he famously bawled, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” Cohn, in case you haven’t seen the documentary that took its title from the president’s outburst, was the red-baiting witch-hunter from the 1950s who became New York City’s top mob lawyer and, fittingly enough, young Donald’s fixer, mentor, and role model. Cohn had all the charm and scruples of a hungry wolverine (in addition to somewhat resembling one), and that’s precisely what the new president wanted and expected from what he liked to call the “Trump Justice Department.”
At the time, Trump could not have imagined that he’d eventually find the next best thing in the form of a long-retired Washington swamp creature from the first Bush administration. But it didn’t take long, after Bill Barr was hauled out of his favorite booth in some K Street steakhouse this past winter and duly confirmed by the Senate, before he showed he had exactly the right stuff. His pre-emptive spinning of the Mueller report in March displayed a combination of ballsy fraudulence, boss-loyalty, and public-relations savvy that sent Trump to his happy place, praising his AG as “a great gentleman,” not to mention “a great man.”
Rather than finding a new Roy Cohn, when Trump brought Barr on board, he actually landed his own Dick Cheney. Barr and Cheney — who, like other presidential-power-freak conservatives, never seem to have gotten over the constraints Congress put on the Ford Administration in the downdraft of Watergate — share a quasi-religious fervor about the unitary executive. They’re true believers in the “constitutional” necessity of the kind of power Nixon was describing when he said, in his famous 1977 TV interviews with David Frost, that “when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” But a whole generation of young conservatives, including Barr and Cheney, was chafing at the rise of congressional oversight in the wake of Watergate. Gerald Ford’s presidency — during which Cheney was chief of staff, Bush CIA director, and Barr a young CIA officer — had been unduly constrained by the meddlesome Democrats on the Hill, and they couldn’t wait to reassert “executive authority” with a vengeance the next chance they got. Which came with Reagan, and then the Bushes, and now Trump.
In May, having successfully clouded and blunted the impact of Mueller’s findings, Barr set out to make Trump’s fondest dream come true: He would investigate the investigators, inspired by the president’s favorite 4chan conspiracy theories. Like the one where it was Ukraine, not Russia, that interfered in the 2016 election, and how Russia was framed in a cover up of the spy operation Barack Obama had ordered his intelligence agencies to conduct to take down both Joe Biden and Donald Trump and, oh never mind. Jane Mayer at The New Yorker can tell you all about it, if you want to dive down that rabbit hole. (That way lies madness. You have been warned.)
So Barr determined to devote the resources of the Justice Department to what’s amounted to an Infowars probe. Since then, on what Stephen Colbert called his “worldwide collusion tour,” the attorney general has flown off to Great Britain and, most recently, Italy to personally track down leads and to convince allies to help the administration conjure up others. He’s appointed a U.S. attorney with a long history of investigating the FBI and finding wrong-doing to lead this one (or at least appear to be leading it). He’s urged the president to press allies like Australia into effectively inventing corroborating evidence. He’s issued a presidential order forcing the intelligence agencies, whom Barr has accused of “spying” on Trump, to participate in the inquiry, as well as promised to declassify and go public with their activities. He’s thrown his weight behind the administration’s refusal to comply with congressional subpoenas. And of course, he tried to block the impeachment-inquiry-inducing whistleblower complaint from reaching Capitol Hill.
Barr’s dead-eyed duplicity has left a lot of Washington Democrats and liberal pundits gobsmacked — and in some cases, calling for him to be impeached along with the president. Gosh, who could possibly have predicted that this perfectly clubbable corporate attorney from Poppy Bush’s circle might be capable of such Machiavellian maneuvering on Trump’s behalf?
“It is shocking,” said Mary McCord, who led the Obama Justice Department’s national security division. “I thought he was an institutionalist who would protect the department from political influence.” Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin marveled at how “The attorney general seems determined to incinerate his professional reputation.” Elizabeth Warren expressed surprise at seeing the AG act “as if he’s the personal attorney and publicist of the President of the United States.” On a call last Wednesday with House Democrats, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who apparently hadn’t seen it coming either, said that “Barr, Pompeo and Giuliani are henchmen. They have gone rogue.”
But Barr has not gone rogue. He is also not, as some have painted him, just another toady — like Rudy Giuliani — desperate to curry favor with our 21st-century Caligula. Quite the contrary: Barr is doing for Trump exactly what he did for Bush I. And based on what he did back then, he’s only getting warmed up.
The sketchy doings of that one-term administration have been obscured by the softening mists of time — and by the fact that Bush II was so much worse. But Barr was smack in the middle of all of it, first running the Office of Legal Counsel and then as attorney general. And at the time, he was famous for it.
In October 1992, before Bush lost his re-election bid to Bill Clinton, the Village Voice published a long expose headlined, “Attorney General William Barr Is the Best Reason to Vote for Clinton.” The author was Frank Snepp, who was one of the first-ever former CIA agents to blow the whistle on its various alleged atrocities in the 1970s (including under Director Bush) before turning to journalism. Snepp detailed how Barr had used the Justice Department to stifle congressional oversight, and the lurid tale of how he’d been instrumental in covering up the Reagan/Bush administration’s “Iraqgate” scandal (everything was a “-gate” back then), in which “agricultural loans” went to Saddam Hussein to help him buy weapons. And, if the New York Times’ conservative columnist William Safire had it right, Barr was part of that scheme from the get-go. Safire, a former Nixon aide and loyalist no less, took to calling Barr the “Cover-Up General.”
Later, Barr advised Bush that he had the authority to attack Iraq unilaterally in 1991 — though he counseled the president that it was probably better, on balance, to ask for a congressional resolution, even if he had the power to go it alone. Barr was also knee-deep in the administration’s decision to invade Panama, in violation of international law, and arrest dictator Manuel Noriega for a show trial in the United States.
Was there more? Oh, yes. When Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court nomination was imperiled, Barr had his people gather evidence against Anita Hill, who’d accused Thomas of sexual harassment, and share their findings with Republicans in Congress. He ramped up the drug war in inner cities with his “Weed and Seed” program. He championed mass incarceration.
Barr also played the villain in one of the most inhumane episodes of the time. When thousands of Haitian refugees tried to flee for the U.S. on boats, Barr helped convince Bush to issue an order to have the desperate and starving “boat people” intercepted (except for the hundreds who drowned) and sent back to Guantanamo Bay, because welcoming them would have been bad for Bush’s re-election prospects. “You want 80,000 Haitians to descend on Florida months before the election?” Barr told other administration officials. “Gimme a break.”
Yessiree, Bill Barr’s an “institutionalist,” but not in the sense commonly understood. Like most of the worst actors in American political history, he’s fueled by an ideological zealotry that transcends the politics of the moment — in this case, a fetish for absolute presidential power over everything that falls into (or can be made to fall into) the executive branch. Adam Serwer at The Atlantic is one of the few who’ve nailed what motivates Barr: The AG “is not grifting,” Serwer wrote a few months back. “He is not a suck-up, or an opportunist, or a lackey. He has not been compromised or corrupted. He is an ideologue who, like many of his Republican predecessors, believes that Republican presidents can do whatever they want, regardless of what Congress, the law, or the Constitution says.”
The danger of someone with Barr’s history is compounded by the fact that, unlike the rest of the motley crew surrounding the president, he’s always been known for competence and efficiency. He is no Rudy, to put it mildly. If only he were.
If Barr manages to help Trump steer clear of impeachment, he’ll certainly be a very handy fellow to have on board for a re-election campaign that could sure use the Justice Department’s help. Who needs Russian assistance, much less amateurs like Roger Stone and Michael Cohen, when you’ve got an attorney general like this?
If Trump ends up losing in 2020, it requires no imagination to predict what will happen on his way out: Pardons for everybody! Barr will make sure of that (including one for himself, no doubt, if he feels the need.) After Bush lost to Bill Clinton in 1992, the outgoing president was pondering a pardon for former Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger, who’d been a principal figure in “Iran-Contra,” the Reagan-era scheme to illegally sell arms to Iran to aid violent right-wing rebel groups in Nicaragua. Along with several other co-conspirators, Weinberger was about to face a criminal indictment as an independent-counsel investigation reached its conclusion. Barr, as he later recounted, advised the president to let the whole gang off the hook. “There were some people arguing just for [a pardon for] Weinberger, and I said, ‘No, in for a penny, in for a pound,’” Barr told an interviewer in 2001. “I went over and told the President I thought he should not only pardon Caspar Weinberger, but while he was at it, he should pardon about five others.” Which Bush did, on Christmas Eve 1992.
A raft of pardons as Trump departs looks, in its twisted way, like the best-case scenario short of impeachment. It is positively mind-bending to imagine what the Trump-Barr team might get up to if the Cover-Up General can somehow help him win a second term. In his first rodeo, after all, Barr was working for a president who was, compared to Trump, a mild and moderate follower of norms, and a human being possessed of some rudiments of a moral compass and sense of patriotic duty. Nothing of the sort binds Trump.
If the insanity of the president weren’t scary enough on its own, the fact that he has an apparently competent attorney general willing to serve as his personal investigator — and to encourage and orchestrate Trump’s defiance of both Congress and the press — makes for a dark and dank scenario. The president managed to find an attorney general who fiercely believes that presidents are not just above the law; they are the law. Apply that twisted and profoundly anti-democratic idea to a character like Trump, and you have a recipe for world-historical levels of catastrophe. It’s hard to wax confident about the country’s ability to survive four more years of havoc-wreaking from Mad King Donald, especially with an enforcer like Barr — along with every lawyer in his Justice Department — at his beck and call.