WASHINGTON — President Trump finally has what he has wanted all along: a U.S. attorney general who will protect his interests, as opposed to one focused on unequivocally upholding the laws of the nation. William Barr may protect those too, but only if they pose no threat to Trump.
That much was dispiritingly clear from the four hours Barr spent in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, justifying his handling of the report of special counsel Robert Mueller, who had been tasked with investigating Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the Trump campaign’s possible efforts to cover it up.
At one point, Barr called the 448-page report his “baby.” It was an idyllic image, but not an accurate one.
The Democrats on the committee, though, really did feel as if they were being treated like children by the experienced Washington attorney. “Give us some credit for knowing what the hell is going on around here,” Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, said. Barr appeared flustered then, but not at too many other moments during the hearing.
Barr was also scheduled to testify on Thursday in front of the House Judiciary Committee, but after Wednesday’s spectacle, he indicated he would not be making another trek up Capitol Hill. The performance in the Senate hearing room had apparently been sufficient.
“Today, the Attorney General testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee for over five hours,” Department of Justice spokesperson Kerri Kupec explained in a statement that went on to decry House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler’s “unprecedented” condition that Barr be questioned by staff lawyers.
In the five weeks since Mueller delivered his report, Barr has played the role of Trump’s offensive lineman. He has shoved aside congressional Democrats seeking to know more, wanting to see the whole report, demanding to know why the four-page summary Barr delivered in late March — his “verdict,” as he called it on Wednesday — seemed less like a factual recapitulation of the special counsel than a press release from the Trump reelection campaign.
Facing an onslaught from Democrats, Barr appeared academic, even phlegmatic at times during Wednesday’s hearing. He explained carefully why no obstruction of justice charges were necessary and why, even if Trump instructed his White House counsel Don McGahn to lie, it was not a crime.
He explained why his summary of the report was valid, when the report’s author — Mueller — appeared to disagree with it. He went along with Republicans’ calls to investigate Hillary Clinton and former President Obama. He did not tamp down their suggestion that the Obama administration was guilty of spying on the Trump presidential campaign.
Barr’s parched explanations took place in the same room where, last year, Brett Kavanaugh intemperately struck out at Democrats while defending his own judicial record and love of beer. Trump loved that performance and likely was not unhappy with Barr’s, despite the sharply differing tone, because the restrained performance was animated by the same impulse: to please the man in the Oval Office.
Jeff Sessions, who Barr replaced, was never all that good at wielding the law in the service of seeming illegalities like obstruction of justice. Without appearing a loyalist, Barr perfectly played the loyalist’s part, yielding nothing to the Democrats, giving the Republicans everything they wanted.
That may leave the rest of the nation without an attorney general, but at least President Trump is in good hands.
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