Below David notes that Benjamin Wittes (of Lawfare) is now saying Bill Barr’s handling of the Mueller Report was “catastrophic” – after earlier huffily vouching for his bona fides and integrity. James Comey yesterday penned a blistering OpEd arguing, in so many words, that Barr had sold his soul to Trump. This comes only a couple weeks after Comey insisted Barr deserved the benefit of the doubt in his handling of the report. Some of this is just the common story of giving the benefit of the doubt to members of your club, insiderism and credentialism, an old story. But there’s another dimension of this I want to focus on.
Bill Barr had a pretty spotty record of rectitude going into this second tour as Attorney General. Others have detailed the incidents from the 1980s, the late Bush administration, the memo to Trump essentially auditioning for the job of AG. Still, quite clearly, people who had no reason to cover for Trump were recently talking Barr up as an institutionalist, someone who knows the ways of the Department of Justice and would preserve its integrity even if he helped Trump as much as he could within the bounds of his ethical and professional responsibilities. Clearly those judgments were completely off base.
In a Huffpo piece by TPM alum Ryan Reilly, Reilly has this quote from Matthew Miller, who ran the DOJ press office under Eric Holder.
Matthew Miller, who headed the Justice Department’s public affairs office under former Attorney General Eric Holder, told HuffPost he thinks Barr has lived in a “cocoon of Fox News” and conservative legal circles in the Trump era and says his trajectory matches that of the Republican Party under Trump.
“My theory now about what happened to Bill Barr is that his change over the past 25 years has tracked the change the entire Republican Party has undergone,” Miller said. “I really think he believes this investigation never should have started to begin with. I think he believes some of the worst conspiracy theories about people inside the FBI trying to take down the president.”
It’s a common refrain among non-Republicans that Fox News and the rest of the conservative media superstructure have essentially brainwashed 30 percent or 40 percent of the population over the last couple decades. But implicit in that belief is that it’s those people, voters, for lack of a better word the audience of national politics. Elites or high level appointees or operatives may cynically participate in this flimflam. But somehow they’re not part of the process, they not stewing in the same cauldron. They’re cynical, amoral, pick your description.
This is a major blindspot. Bill Barr is another Republican guy in his late 60s who’s been living, as Miller puts it, in that Fox News/GOP legal circles cocoon for two decades. Why would he be any different from your birther uncle you avoid at holiday dinners?
More to the point, why would we be in the current situation if the bacillus of Foxism or rightwing authoritarianism (whatever you want to call it) wasn’t as pervasive with the Bill Barrs of the GOP as the ordinary Joes you see at the Trump rallies? More articulate, yes. But different? Not really. And why would it be?
Beyond the stonewalling and outrageous comments from Barr yesterday, one thing that struck me is that more than a few times he didn’t seem familiar with basic facts of the case or the Report. I don’t mean points in dispute between pro and anti-Trump commentators. I mean, basic factual details. It wasn’t clear to me he’d actually read the Report itself. At least some of his arguments seemed based on Republican commentaries rather than the actual document. Much the same applies to his comments about 2016 “spying”. This isn’t to excuse any of Barr’s lawless and now, in at least certain cases, criminal behavior. But it’s not clear to me he’s even sweating the details on behalf of his authoritarian aims.
Top to bottom, Republicans have imbibed the Fox/authoritarian worldview. That’s why we have Trump. That’s why we shouldn’t be surprised about Barr.