Donald Trump finds an attorney general: But will Bill Barr be his "Roy Cohn"?

Barr has defended Trump's abuses of power, but he's also a big believer in legal tradition. Which way will this go?

By Heather Digby Parton


Published December 10, 2018 9:15AM (EST)

Donald Trump; William Barr (Wikimedia/Getty/Photo Montage by Salon)
Donald Trump; William Barr (Wikimedia/Getty/Photo Montage by Salon)

Shortly after the Saturday Night Massacre in October 1973 Texas lawyer Leon Jaworski received a call from the White House chief of staff, Alexander Haig. Haig simply said, "He wants you, Leon." This wasn't the first time the White House had reached out to Jaworski. He'd been offered the job of Watergate special prosecutor earlier but had turned it down. Now the president was calling and he felt it was his duty to take the job at this important juncture.

Jaworski was nominally a Democrat but in those days, especially in Texas, that meant he was a conservative. He had supported Nixon from the beginning, voting for him both times. So the president felt he finally had an ally in the special prosecutor's office, not one of those pointy-headed Harvard types who Nixon believed had always hated the poor kid from Whittier.

Jaworski had a reputation for rectitude. He'd famously prosecuted war crimes after World War II. (The truth is a little murkier -- he was plenty political.) But he took himself and the law seriously. Jaworski took office, looked over the evidence the prosecutors had amassed and was appalled. He later explained that when he heard the "smoking gun" tape in which Nixon was heard telling his henchman H.R. Haldeman to commit perjury, he understood that "the president, a lawyer, coached Haldeman on how to testify untruthfully and yet not commit perjury. ... It amounted to subornation of perjury. For the No. 1 law enforcement officer of the country, it was, in my opinion, as demeaning an act as could be imagined."

I bring this up because President Trump has finally nominated someone to replace Jeff  Sessions permanently as attorney general: William Barr, who previously served in the same role under the late George H.W. Bush. There are some intriguing parallels between the Jaworski appointment and this one, although there's no guarantee that the two cases will end up the same way.

This news of Barr's appointment was received with relief by much of Washington, mostly because, after the debacle of the Matt Whitaker temporary appointment, everyone had been afraid Trump would nominate someone from Fox News or a personal toady like Rudy Giuliani. At least Barr is a qualified and experienced legal professional and (as far as we know) isn't himself under investigation by the Justice Department.

Like Jaworski, Barr was also apparently interviewed earlier to be Trump's personal lawyer. According to Yahoo News, the two met privately in 2017 to discuss Barr coming on as Trump's personal defense attorney and Barr turned him down, citing other obligations. Trump's team circled back around to Barr came back to him after John Dowd, another Trump lawyer, resigned in 2018. Barr put hem off again. It seems that Trump truly believes this man is someone he wants on his team. Since the president is entirely self-centered it's likely he thinks he's finally found his "Roy Cohn."

It's not hard to see why Trump would believe this. Barr told the New York Times that he thinks the phony Clinton "Uranium One" scandal should be further investigated, suggesting that he's deep into right-wing conspiracy nonsense, which is not a good sign:

“There is nothing inherently wrong about a president calling for an investigation,” said William P. Barr, who ran the Justice Department under President George Bush. “Although an investigation shouldn’t be launched just because a president wants it, the ultimate question is whether the matter warrants investigation.”

Mr. Barr said he sees more basis for investigating the uranium deal than any supposed collusion between Mr. Trump and Russia. “To the extent it is not pursuing these matters, the department is abdicating its responsibility,” he said.

Barr is also on record complaining, like Trump, that special counsel Robert Mueller's office lacks balance because some prosecutors donated to Democrats. I'm not sure who made the rule that all presidential investigations have to be run by Republicans, but after Archibald Cox hey all have been: Jaworski, Iran-Contra prosecutor Lawrence Walsh, Ken Starr and now Mueller. Apparently, they're not allowed to even have Democrats on their staff in order to be credible.

Barr also defended Trump's decision to fire James Comey as FBI director in an op-ed, writing that Comey had mishandled the Hillary Clinton email investigation. Notably, he did not say that Clinton should have been indicted but rather that Comey's decision to go beyond FBI authority to "explain" why the case was being closed, and the subsequent political mess that decision created, was a firing offense. He also expressed faith in the integrity of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, saying the Russia investigation would be unimpeded by the firing.

The fact that Barr has been approached by the administration before and has made these public comments means he very well may be Trump's big ally in the Department of Justice. The comments about the Uranium One non-scandal are worrying in that regard, since Barr seemed to have developed the cockamamie idea that there was some evidence that demanded investigation, which just isn't true. The idea that a president can ask for an investigation but the Justice Department can decide not to do it is fatuous, and Barr surely knows that. Presidents should not demand investigations of anyone, particularly not of their political rivals. It's an abuse of the office, and the DOJ should not be put in the position of having to defy him.

Barr seems to have cozied up to Trump from the beginning in a way that many other Washington lawyers have avoided, which suggests that he's not an old-school straight arrow like Jaworski or, for that matter, Robert Mueller. But that doesn't mean he couldn't be. When you look at all of Barr's comments together most of them aren't as totally Trumpish as they may sound in isolation. Barr's history is that of an establishment institutionalist, which means that while he may say that Trump has the freedom to do as he sees fit in most circumstances, he may also defend the Department of Justice as an agency with inherent independence and decision-making power. If you look at his language in those op-eds and commentaries, Barr is quite judicious in the way he speaks even when he's defending Trump.

But it's hard to imagine Trump would have selected him for the job without the kind of guarantee he expected from his previous attorney general, Sessions, or from Comey, the man he fired from the FBI. Would he have hired anyone who refused to be his Roy Cohn? We'll have to hope someone asks Barr about this at his confirmation hearings before the Senate.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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