Attorney General William Barr does not seem to have read his own Justice Department report published this week finding that the FBI’s investigation of the Trump campaign was justified.
If he had, he would be aware that the DOJ inspector general reached two principal conclusions about whether the FBI acted properly when it looked into whether the campaign colluded with Russia. First, the investigation uncovered troubling abuses of investigatory power. Second, those abuses were not motivated by political bias, because the decision to open the investigation was well warranted by the available evidence.
Barrs has made it his primary goal in office to manage President Donald Trump’s crisis communications, and he’s done a masterful job throughout his tenure.
Yet Barr summarized the work his own department did by saying that “the F.B.I. launched an intrusive investigation of a U.S. presidential campaign on the thinnest of suspicions that, in my view, were insufficient to justify the steps taken.”
Barr is America’s top law enforcement officer, a lawyer by trade and the ultimate head of the FBI. But he seems to view his principle role as being the president’s communications director of last resort. He doesn’t just shape optics; he creates optical illusions.
Barr has made it his primary goal in office to manage President Donald Trump’s crisis communications, and he’s done a masterful job throughout his tenure. It should come as no surprise that, as a consequence, law enforcement itself is the victim when the head of federal law enforcement engages in political hackery.
He made his goal clear when he first courted Trump. After all, the first thing any communications consultant needs is a client, and Barr knew how to land his big fish. Instead of a slide presentation in a well-apportioned conference room, Barr’s pitch was a 19-page memo sent to the Justice Department leadership in the summer of 2018, attacking as illegitimate the then-ongoing investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller, which it seemed might conclude that the president had obstructed justice. Then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Trump were already on the outs, and as a former attorney general himself, Barr was not-so-subtly volunteering his services.
“I am writing as a former official deeply concerned with the institutions of the Presidency and the Department of Justice,” the memo began. “I realize that I am in the dark about many facts, but I hope my views may be useful.”
It was an amazingly brazen cold call, not just because he was offering his opinions unbidden, but because the clear subtext of his pitch was: Imagine how useful I could be to you with all the facts.
When the first PR crisis hit after his installation — the release of the much-anticipated Mueller report — Barr proved his value to the client. Mueller’s investigators had found 10 possible instances of obstruction of justice, one of which was an open-and-shut case: Trump instructed then-White House Counsel Don McGahn to create a false record to trip up investigators.
For a law enforcement officer, these findings would have been problematic. But for a communications professional, it was just another day at the office. Barr seized the advantage by holding up the publication of the report itself so that he could first publish his own summary — the infamous Barr letter.
Barr’s letter was misleading — in the PR industry one might euphemistically call it “creative framing.” But Barr understood that the law was beside the point. The real action was in the court of public opinion.
Barr’s letter, a legal-esque KitchenAid of spin and slant, dizzied and distorted the public’s understanding of the Mueller report before anyone outside the Justice Department could read the thing. Barr then held a press conference right before the 400-plus-page report was released, forcing the media to cover his public remarks before they had time to digest the primary source. This was a stroke of genius.
Even today, when I conduct focus groups with Trump voters as part of my political communications practice, they frequently recite the position Barr first staked out in his letter and press conference: Mueller’s team found nothing; they came up empty. That’s the power of setting the narrative before anyone else.
Today, Barr is spinning the IG report. Once again, he’s pre-emptively undermined the neutral investigation — this time by pre-emptively beginning his own competing inquiry. Once again, he’s playing the part not of attorney general but of spinmeister. Once again, he’s criticizing and distorting the findings of people who work for him. Once again, he’s endangering the framework of our entire legal system in order to serve his client.
Tearing down the report’s findings in an interview with NBC on Tuesday, Barr also attempted to take on the IG and any independent federal check on the president. He preened: “From a civil liberties standpoint, the greatest danger to our free system is that the incumbent government used the apparatus of the state – principally the law enforcement agencies and the intelligence agencies … in a way that could affect the outcome of the election.”
The fact that Barr could make this statement with a straight face while simultaneously defending Trump’s attempt to extort Ukrainian interference in the 2020 election is, in its own way, something of a marvel.
The entire point of inspectors general is to have a universally trusted independent watchdog in every federal department and agency. The immense power of the FBI and Justice Department make their inspector general (they share one) all the more important. The country is lucky to have Michael Horowitz — praised and trusted by Democrats and Republicans alike — in that role.
Once again, he’s endangering the framework of our entire legal system in order to serve his client.
But for Barr — who has come under fire even from fellow conservatives for his knavish devotion to the imperial presidency and Trump in particular — having a trusted arbiter undermine the president’s “Deep State coup” conspiracy theory isn’t a service, it’s a threat. Not to the rule of law — Barr cares not a whit that he is sabotaging the purpose and credibility of independent watchdogs. No, the threat is to the political interests of his client.
Barr is portraying himself as a stricter protector of civil liberties than the IG. But by undermining the assessments of the official watchdogs, he’s weakening their oversight in the future. That’s exactly the opposite of what an attorney general is supposed to do.
Come to think of it, so is PR.