This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.
Before Bill Barr was the 85th attorney general of the United States, he was, among other things, on the Board of Directors of Time Warner. That was how I first came to meet him.
I was working for HBO and its sister channel Cinemax at that time, and we connected over his appreciation of a Cinemax show that I worked on called “Banshee.” “Banshee” was a violent, pulpy series that told the story of an ex-con who comes into a small town and, through a series of events, assumes the identity of the town’s sheriff. Barr, a fan, wanted to see the set of “Banshee,” and for an entire day in the summer of 2014, he and I (along with Paul Cappuccio, then corporate counsel for Time Warner and a former deputy of Barr at the Justice Department) traveled to Charlotte, North Carolina and toured the set.
The directing showrunner, Greg Yaitanes, arranged it so that Barr and Cappuccio could see a scene being filmed, could view the edited version of an action sequence rehearsal, and could spend time and take photos with two of the series stars. Barr and Cappuccio thoroughly enjoyed themselves and expressed appreciation for the experience during the flight home.
Last year, I met up with Barr again. I had just launched CrimeStory.com and the Crime Story Podcast, a media outlet dedicated to telling stories about the world of crime and justice. As I was planning Crime Story, I knew that we would be focusing on the human impact of criminal justice and the narratives presented around it. Many of these stories would shed light on inherent inequities in the system that leave individuals of color and of limited means at a distinct disadvantage.
And so, I sought an interview with my old acquaintance — now the attorney general — to discuss how his thinking about these themes and issues had changed since he first served in the role in the early ‘90s. I also wanted to ask him what it was about the themes of justice in the “Banshee” series that appealed to him.
To my surprise, he agreed to meet with me. On June 5, 2019, I walked into the Department of Justice Building in Washington to interview the Attorney General. You can listen to or read the transcript of that interview here.
It’s been a turbulent thirteen months since then — both for America and for how justice is carried out in it. Many of the themes that came up in my conversation with the AG (implicit bias in law enforcement, Black Lives Matter protests, anger at injustices, criminal justice reform) have been thrust to the center of the national conversation in the aftermath of the deaths of George Floyd and Breona Taylor. We’ve also all observed his involvement in some of President Trump’s decision-making in response to the social unrest in Washington, D.C., and beyond. These events only intensified my curiosity about how Barr thinks about so many of the issues.
In light of his conduct over the last year and new reports about his past, here are some of my reflections on and conclusions from our conversation:
Barr was unwilling to reflect on implicit racial bias of law enforcement.
During the confirmation process, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) asked Barr about the idea of implicit bias. Surprisingly, Barr said in a written response to Booker that he had “not studied the issue of implicit racial bias in our criminal justice system,” and had “not become sufficiently familiar with the issue to say whether such bias exists.” But, he said, he would task the Justice Department with examining “racial disparities and the policies that may contribute to them.”
During our interview last year, I asked him whether he had, in fact, tasked the DOJ with looking into the concept of implicit bias.
“Yes,” he responded, “but I’m not going to get into that question.”
Over the last two months, protests have swept the county over police brutality and the deaths of Floyd and Taylor. But an acknowledgement of implicit bias in policing is still lacking in his public remarks. As recently as this week, Barr jumped straight past any consideration of the concept and focused his attention on criticizing “extreme reaction that has demonized police.”
“We had that terrible death in Minneapolis,” Barr said, referring to the death of George Floyd as a white police officer kneeled on his neck, “but then we had this extreme reaction that has demonized police and called for the defunding of police departments. And what we have seen then is a significant increase in violent crime in many cities. And this rise is a direct result of the attack on the police forces and the weakening of police forces.
Barr believes in what he calls the ‘Ferguson Effect.’
Barr was one of three former attorney generals who, in a 2018 Washington Post op-ed, praised outgoing Attorney General Jeff Sessions for his tough-on-crime approach amid “the spreading ‘Ferguson effect’ causing officers to shy away from proactive policing out of fear of prosecution.”
In our interview, I asked Barr to explain what the op-ed was referring to. Barr described it as the idea “that if police feel that they are going to be unfairly treated or unjustly disciplined for something they felt was a righteous act of self defense, and there’d be what they feel is unfair Monday morning quarterbacking, they will not take those risks. They will not confront crime where they think it can put them in danger, and the biggest losers of that can be people in high crime neighborhoods.”
Barr has a deeply subjective understanding of justice.
In our interview, we discussed portrayals of justice in the media, including in “Banshee” and the classic depiction of vigilante justice, “Dirty Harry,” of which Barr was also a fan.
“It does have, undergirding it, this basic tension between justice in the sense of the ultimate outcome versus justice as a process,” Barr told me of “Banshee.” “I’ve often talked about that, which is, I think, to me, justice is the right outcome.”
“I believe a sense of justice is hardwired into human beings,” Barr continued. “Don’t ask me why, but it is there and it’s satisfying to see justice done. And we feel angry when we see injustice that isn’t rectified.”
I later spoke to Georgetown Law Professor Paul Butler about my interview with Barr. Barr takes an instrumentalist view of law enforcement, he told me.
“He apparently believes that the end justifies the mean(s),” Butler said.
“The law has always been a sword for Barr in his push, dating back to the late 80s for increased incarceration,” Butler continued. “He also seems to be an instrumentalist with regard to his work for the President of the United States. The law is a shield for the President to protect him against laws that the President feels are unjust.”
Barr rhetorically focuses on left-wing extremism, in spite of the fact that the most recent criminal indictments brought by his own Justice Department target right-wing extremist groups.
On June 4, 2020 Barr made the following statement: “We have evidence that Antifa and other similar extremist groups, as well as actors of a variety of different political persuasions, have been involved in instigating and participating in the violent activity … And we are also seeing foreign actors playing all sides to exacerbate the violence.”
And yet, both just before and just after those remarks, the Department of Justice brought cases against men affiliated with the right wing movement called the “Boogaloo Bois” in Las Vegas and California for alleged crimes including conspiracy to cause destruction and homicide.
It seems, based on the reflections of an attorney who knew Barr as a boy and as a young man, that Barr’s personal “sense of justice” is viscerally hostile to ideas like racial equality.
Jimmy Lohman is a death row defense attorney and musician in Austin. Lohman wrote a piece for a small Florida publication about Barr back in 1991 when Barr was nominated to be attorney general by then-President George H.W. Bush.
Lohman’s piece presented an account “of being intimidated by Barr when he was two years ahead of me in both middle and high school (1963-1967) at Horace Mann in New York, and in college (1969-71) at Columbia University, where his violent behavior escalated.” In a piece published just last month in the Daily Beast, Lohman elaborated on his 1991 column.
Among the claims that Lohman made in his articles were that:
- Barr and his friends allegedly harassed Lohman as a boy because he wore pro-civil rights buttons, calling him a “pinko.”
- Barr and his brothers allegedly were known to have extreme right-wing views.
- One year, Barr and his friends allegedly picketed the “Junior Carnival,” an annual charity fundraiser, because the proceeds were going to the NAACP.
- In college, Lohman said, Barr earned a reputation for teaming up with riot police to attack anti-war protesters and “beat heads” right alongside them.
“I have hesitated even to air my childhood grievances with him because they are so trivial and petty compared to the destruction he has wreaked on the vital institutions that sustain our democratic way of life,” Lohman wrote. He, however, wrote that he chose to speak out again because he hoped to make people aware that, in his view, “Barr is a lifelong racist… Barr is a bully… Barr is a true fascist.” And he hoped to raise awareness of his opinion that “Barr’s core belief is in the virtually unlimited power of the American president (depending, of course, on what political party the President belongs to).”
My initial impression of Barr was that he was a personable and affable man, with a taste for pulpy testosterone-heavy entertainment. I also felt that he held a deep commitment to the integrity of America’s democratic institutions.
In the six years since I met him, that view has shifted. As I have read about his past (particularly his first stint at the Justice Department), and as I have observed his work in the Trump administration, I have come to perceive his commitment to presidential authority as relativistic and inextricably entwined with his own subjective “sense of justice.”
June 5, 2020 marked the one-year anniversary of my last meeting with Barr. I still have questions for the attorney general — about his understanding of implicit bias, about the Ferguson effect, about his relentless focus on largely peaceful, anti-racism protestors as his own DOJ charges individuals aligned with right-wing groups. I have posed each of these questions to him by email, all of which have gone unanswered.
Editor’s note: TPM Media LLC helped incubate Crime Story Media and owns a small percentage of it. The two sites, TPM and Crime Story, are editorially independent of each other.
Kary Antholis is the founder of Crime Story Media LLC, created in July 2019 after he retired as the president of Miniseries and Cinemax Programming at HBO. Kary serves on the Board of Visitors at Georgetown Law and as an adjunct professor at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. He holds a JD from Georgetown Law, an MA in History from Stanford University, and a BA from Bowdoin College.