Over the weekend, a friend sent me a link to an old Salon article that describes then Attorney General Bill Barr scrambling in the final weeks before the 1992 presidential election to push a probe into an obscure land deal in Arkansas that included then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary Clinton not as targets but as a potential witnesses. I’d vaguely remembered this chapter of the Whitewater drama and the eventual report that Robert Ray (successor to Ken Starr) released in 2002. So I looked it up this morning and was surprised to see that – Holy Crap – I wrote it! You forget a lot in 17 years! In any case, I’m curious why this isn’t getting more attention in Barr’s confirmation hearing. It’s directly relevant to the issues we’re dealing with today: an Attorney General putting his hands on the scale to protect the boss who gave him the job.
You can read the details here and you can see even more in the final Whitewater report itself. But the gist is that Barr and other top Bush administration officials took a case that Bush-appointees in Little Rock didn’t believe had merit and worked hard to make it an active case. This was in the hopes that a late breaking scandal would help then-President Bush stage a dramatic comeback to win reelection.
Reading the quotes and paper trail is an education in pre-Trump rule of law norms and how they could be violated while suggesting otherwise. The report is filled with self-serving claims that Barr and others only wanted to make sure the case was handled correctly, neither speeding it up or slowing it down. But the actions all suggest otherwise. As the Bush-appointed US Attorney in Little Rock put it in testimony to the Office of Independent Counsel: “All of a sudden, we had this FBI pressure that something had to be done by October 16th .”
Admittedly, our standards have become rather jaded in the Trump era. Barr wasn’t in over-the-top Trump or Nunes mode. He and his colleagues clearly tried to cover his tracks even as he struggled to push the case along for political purposes. But this is all highly relevant to the decisions that Barr will have to make as Attorney General in the Trump administration. This requires a much closer look.