Speaking on the phone for 90 minutes with Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberley Strassel as his tenure at the Justice Department comes to a close, Attorney General Bill Barr let down his guard. He must have been far too relaxed while talking to a devoted ally who once gratuitously referred to him as "real attorney general," because his comments were much more revealing and inculpatory than he seemed to realize.
Strassel has been a consistent propagandist for the Trump administration, so it's little surprise that Barr went to her to deliver a sprawling interview on his controversial time in office. Nor is it surprising that he got a fawning reception.
Early in the piece, Strassel revealed that Barr made a stunning admission:
He reminds me why he took the job [of attorney general] in the first place: "The Department of Justice was being used as a political weapon" by a "willful if small group of people," who used the claim of collusion with Russia in an attempt to "topple an administration," he says. "Someone had to make sure that the power of the department stopped being abused and that there was accountability for what had happened." Mr. Barr largely succeeded, in the process filling a vacuum of political oversight, reimposing norms, and resisting partisan critics on both sides.
This is remarkable since it rests on a false premise. There's no evidence that there was a group of people using the Justice Department to "topple" the Trump administration. And importantly, this isn't how Barr discussed his appointment or his regard for the Mueller investigation at the time when he was nominated.
"When [Robert Mueller] was named special counsel, I said that his selection was 'good news' and that, knowing him, I had confidence he would handle the matter properly," Barr said during his confirmation hearing. "I still have that confidence today."
He also dismissed Trump's attacks on the probe as a "witch hunt" during his confirmation, saying, "I don't believe Mr. Mueller would be involved in a witch hunt." He added that his argument, circulated months before he was appointed attorney general, against Mueller's theory of obstruction was just based on speculation. "I was writing in the dark, and we're all in the dark," he said.
And he dismissed calls that he recuse, saying he would make his own determination about whether to supervise the investigation based on consultation with ethics officials. For the sake of the investigation's integrity, it never made sense that Barr should supervise it. He only got the attorney general job because his predecessor had infuriated the president by refusing to interfere and shut down the probe. Trump fired Jeff Sessions for not obstructing justice. And Barr became attorney general in 2019 after having circulated a memo the previous summer to the Justice Department arguing against a potential obstruction of justice charge for the president, which some viewed as his "audition" for the role, though he denied this characterization.
So Barr's subsequent decision to spin the Mueller report in the most favorable light for the president, and his assertion that he had cleared Trump of any potential obstruction of justice charge related to the damning conduct it described, always looked blatantly corrupt. But now, he has admitted that he already had his mind made up about the investigation before he was officially confirmed. He was going into the Justice Department specifically to stop the people using claims of "Russian collusion" to "topple" Trump. But he also wants us to believe he read the Mueller report and made a dispassionate assessment of the facts and the law?
It gets worse. As he has before, Barr said that Mueller's conclusion that he couldn't establish a criminal obstruction between members of the Trump campaign and Russia means there was never any evidence of "collusion" at all.
"Of course the Russians did bad things in the election," he said. "But the idea that this was done with the collusion of the Trump campaign—there was never any evidence. It was entirely made up."
At this point, a real journalist — or even someone who's not an entirely credulous booster — would point out that there was plenty of evidence of collusion. For an incomplete list, there was campaign aide George Papadopoulos getting secret offers of Hillary Clinton dirt before Russia released its hacked files, Campaign Chair Paul Manafort's exchanges with a Russian spy and debts to a Russian oligarch, Roger Stone's correspondence with WikiLeaks, and Trump's own secret negotiations for Trump Tower Moscow. Strassel didn't mention, either, that Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz extensively reviewed the investigation and concluded it was properly predicated.
Barr never accepted Horowitz's explanation. Instead, he appointed U.S. Attorney John Durham to investigate the investigators, just as Trump demanded. But the Durham probe hasn't lived up to the high expectations Barr has set for it. He touted it for more than a year, breaking Justice Department protocol by discussing an open investigation without any plausible justification.
"He is looking at other agencies and also private — departments, and also private actors. So it is a much broader investigation," Barr has said of Durham's investigation, as Politico reported in 2019. "And also, he's not just looking at the FISA aspect of it. He is looking at all the conduct, both before and after the election."
However, Durham's permit has since narrowed. As the AP reported of its own recent interview with Barr:
The current investigation, a criminal probe, had begun very broadly but has since "narrowed considerably" and now "really is focused on the activities of the Crossfire Hurricane investigation within the FBI," Barr said. He said he expects Durham would detail whether any additional prosecutions will be brought and make public a report of the investigation's findings.
And he told Strassel that the CIA had been cleared:
The biggest news from Mr. Durham's probe is what he has ruled out. Mr. Barr was initially suspicious that agents had been spying on the Trump campaign before the official July 2016 start date of Crossfire Hurricane, and that the Central Intelligence Agency or foreign intelligence had played a role. But even prior to naming Mr. Durham special counsel, Mr. Barr had come to the conclusion that he didn't "see any sign of improper CIA activity" or "foreign government activity before July 2016," he says. "The CIA stayed in its lane."
This was a huge admission, though Strassel didn't treat it like much of one. Strassel herself had stoked conspiracy theories about the CIA and a supposed "spy scandal." Barr himself had told Congress in 2019 that he believed there was "spying" on the Trump campaign, fanning the flames of conspiracy even higher.
What Barr is now admitting to, though, is that he swallowed a bunch of conspiracy theories pushed by the right wing and sent investigators off to uncover them. That's actually exactly what he claims was wrong with the Mueller investigation. But the Mueller investigation actually uncovered a lot of criminal activity, including obstruction of justice, as well as evidence of troubling if not criminal behavior.
And yet when his own conspiracy theories crash and burn, Barr doesn't conclude that his investigation was improperly motivated. No, that's just the system working as it should. It's only when other investigations started by other people fail to produce conclusive proof of a specific type of crime that the investigators' motives should be suspect, in Barr's view. Barr appears blissfully unaware of or undisturbed by his blatant hypocrisy.
Barr also just went on to suggest that, unlike Mueller's case, Durham might not be bringing many charges at all. (He's already obtained one guilty plea from a former FBI lawyer on a minor charge uncovered by Horowitz.) Barr, seeming to tamp down expectations, said that the American criminal justice system is designed to find people innocent, and we shouldn't be desperate to see political opponents end up in "orange jumpsuits."
But while he's downplaying the possibility of criminal charges now, it was Barr himself who repeatedly stoked them. Consider what he said of Durham's probe in one interview in June:
My own view is that the evidence shows that we're not dealing with just mistakes or sloppiness. There is something far more troubling here, and we're going to get to the bottom of it. And if people broke the law, and we can establish that with the evidence, they will be prosecuted.
I think what happened to [Trump] was one of the greatest travesties in American history. Without any basis they started this investigation of his campaign, and even more concerning, actually is what happened after the campaign, a whole pattern of events while he was president. So I—to sabotage the presidency, and I think that— or at least have the effect of sabotaging the presidency.
After talking like that, he shouldn't be shocked that his fans — including the president — had raised their expectations. Of course, that's one reason why he shouldn't have been talking about an ongoing investigation at all.
As I've argued before, what Barr often seems most aggrieved by about the Russia investigation is the media coverage it received, some of which arguably went too far. But Barr is, in this case, entirely unconcerned with the fact that he is smearing others and helping to spread falsehoods about an investigation that may end up with significantly much less to show for itself than Mueller's.
Perhaps most preposterous of all, though, is Barr's insistence that even if Durham doesn't conclude by bringing any charges, we may still have reason to be concerned about non-criminal activity he uncovers. Again, this is not the standard Barr judges others by. He doesn't consider the fact that there are a series of troubling connections between Trump campaign figures and Russians during the 2016 campaign as worthy of investigation in themselves. If Barr were consistent, there may have been no reason to start the Durham probe at all.
Still, Strassel, gallingly, includes Barr's phrase, "one standard of justice," in her title for the piece. Utterly laughable.
The truth is that Bill Barr is a highly partisan figure who came into the Justice Department with a deeply misguided view warped by right-wing media. He may have convinced himself that he is just bringing balance back to the department, but he spent much of his time hunting down perceived enemies and acting as the president's personal defense attorney. When the facts didn't support his conspiracy theories and his investigation came up dry, or when he had an opportunity for partisan advantage that was too obviously corrupt for even him to take, well, these events just proved he was an upstanding guy all along. And as long as he can get people like Kimberley Strassel to tell his story, he'll have no reason to doubt this farcical fiction.