Bill Barr remains a big mystery: Protect Bob Mueller or shield Donald Trump's crimes?

Incoming attorney general says he's friends with Bob Mueller, but won't promise we'll ever see the report

Published January 16, 2019 9:05AM (EST)

Attorney General nominee William Barr speaks before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019. (AP/Carolyn Kaster)
Attorney General nominee William Barr speaks before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019. (AP/Carolyn Kaster)

The New York Times' Michael Schmidt reported a year ago that back in March of 2017, President Trump was steaming mad that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had recused himself from any inquiry into the Russian interference in the election. He'd ordered his White House counsel, Don McGahn, to tell Sessions to rescind the recusal:

Mr. McGahn was unsuccessful, and the president erupted in anger in front of numerous White House officials, saying he needed his attorney general to protect him. Mr. Trump said he had expected his top law enforcement official to safeguard him the way he believed Robert F. Kennedy, as attorney general, had done for his brother John F. Kennedy and Eric H. Holder Jr. had for Barack Obama.

Mr. Trump then asked, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” He was referring to his former personal lawyer and fixer, who had been Senator Joseph R. McCarthy’s top aide during the investigations into communist activity in the 1950s and died in 1986.

We are so inured to the president's contemptible behavior that such reports elicit a moment of shock and then fade into the next shameful utterance and we all move on. This comment had a bit of a longer life simply because for the next 20 months, Trump was so upset that Sessions hadn't "protected him" in the Russia investigation that he tortured his attorney general publicly with constant insults and degrading comments, trying to get him to quit without flat-out dismissing him. He finally had his lackey John Kelly fire Sessions on the morning after the midterm election.

Trump never tried to hide that he was upset his attorney general didn't serve as his personal bodyguard. He was quite open about it. And like the dying array of desiccated potted plants they are, the GOP congress was completely silent about the fact that the president of the United States believes the attorney general's job is to make sure the Department of Justice turns a blind eye to any evidence of his criminality. They didn't care that Trump's obsession with being "protected" by the most powerful law enforcement officer in the country might be a hint that he had some serious legal exposure. Instead, they stepped in to protect him themselves, flogging threadbare alternate investigations into Hillary Clinton, throwing up smokescreens about rogue FBI agents and otherwise ignoring the plain fact that Trump's whining about Sessions' recusal was tantamount to a confession.

No one should be surprised, then, that William Barr, Trump's nominee as Sessions' permanent replacement, will be unlikely to recuse himself from overseeing the Russia investigation even though there is ample reason to believe he should. During his first day of confirmation hearings, Barr claimed that the attorney general has no obligation to follow the recommendations of the DOJ ethics office in such matters. When informed that most nominees for the job have agreed to do it anyway, he shrugged and made clear he would make the decision himself.

That was, of course, a condition of taking the job and he knew it.

Barr also claimed that he would not fire Mueller except for good cause and added a very clever little flourish designed to put to rest any concerns that, despite Trump's hundreds of tweets to the contrary, the president is concerned with Mueller's integrity. Barr said he told the president he is friends with Mueller and that Mueller is a straight shooter  -- which we are supposed to believe the man who ran around wailing "Where's my Roy Cohn?" took at face value.

Barr is not particularly well informed about many of the issues surrounding this investigation but he was definitely up on the special counsel regulations. He knows that, contrary to the common assumption, any report from Mueller's report will not go directly to the public and will instead be submitted to the attorney general, who will decide what the Congress and the public will be allowed to see. Barr indicated that he had no intention of giving up that prerogative no matter how much he admires his good friend Bob Mueller.

That has Democratic officials more than a little bit concerned:

I wrote about Barr's potential to be a straight shooter himself, in the mode of Watergate special prosecutor Leon Jaworski, a couple of months ago. That may still be possible. Some observers  in the media seem to believe that Barr showed he was an independent guy who would call it like he sees it. But as I mentioned in that earlier piece, there are also unfortunate signs that Barr may be unduly influenced by the right-wing fever swamps, even to the extent of buying into conspiracy theories promulgated on Fox News.

Somehow that doesn't strike me as something a "just the facts, ma'am" kind of guy would say. But again, maybe Barr has been foolishly relying on Sean Hannity for his news, as so many Republicans do, and will take a deep breath once he sees all the evidence his friend Bob has gathered.

As luck would have it, we all got to see a little more of that yesterday. Mueller dropped a big court filing about all of Paul Manafort's lies to the special counsel's office just as Barr was wrapping up his testimony. Much of it is redacted but what we can see indicates once again that there is more to this story than we, or Bill Barr, could possible know. The biggest news is that Manafort's involvement with the administration allegedly extends well beyond his tenure with the 2016 Trump campaign and into the presidency itself.

There is another investigation into campaign finance going on, presumably having to do with Trump's super PAC, Rebuilding America Now, which was allegedly involved in some kind of financial shenanigans with Manafort. Apparently Manafort lied to the prosecutors about his involvement in hiring folks for the administration during the Trump transition. One can only wonder whom he was recommending and why. There's more about Manafort's association with former FSB operative Konstantin Kilimnik and the filing also references "other investigations," the details of which are redacted. Meanwhile, the court delayed the sentencing hearing for Manafort's former associate Rick Gates by another two months yesterday, indicating that Gates is still cooperating in the investigation.

If Barr is confirmed, as seems likely unless something dramatic happens before the vote, it appears that he's got his work cut out for him getting up to speed on the facts. If he's been getting his information up till now from Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, he's in for quite a shock.

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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