Lock him up? Bill Barr probably didn't perjure himself — but he's in big trouble anyway

Proving that Barr committed perjury might be tough, but his sleazy dance could yet land him in legal jeopardy

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published May 3, 2019 12:47PM (EDT)

U.S. Attorney General William Barr testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee May 1, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Getty/Win McNamee)
U.S. Attorney General William Barr testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee May 1, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Getty/Win McNamee)

On Wednesday, Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, with an assist from an anonymous leaker, successfully proved that Donald Trump's recently appointed attorney general-cum-cover-up artist, William Barr, is a liar.

Twice, in testimony earlier this month to Congress, Barr played dumb regarding special counsel Robert Mueller's opinions about how Barr handled Mueller's report into Trump's connections to Russian efforts to undermine democracy. First, Barr told Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., that he was unaware of Mueller's opinion of Barr's declaration that Trump had not obstructed justice. The second came when Barr told Rep. Charlie Crist, D-Fla., that he had no knowledge of the Mueller team's frustrations with his efforts to spin the contents of the report before it was released.

A letter leaked to the press Tuesday night exposed these comments as lies. It turns out that Barr had received two letters and one phone call from Mueller complaining about Barr's spinning. Most observers assume that a particular stress point was Barr's denial that any obstruction had occurred when the Mueller report lays out 10 separate incidents that any fool could see constitute obstruction of justice.

This has all understandably led to calls for Barr's resignation. But soon, the p-word — perjurystarted getting tossed around, leading to the hope among many liberals that Barr could face stiffer consequences than being forced out of office and publicly outed as a lying scumbag. Perjury could mean disbarment. Perjury could mean jail.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was even reported as saying in a private meeting that Barr had committed a "crime," though she declined to use such stiff language in public.

Unfortunately, Pelosi is probably smart to avoid using words like "crime" and "perjury" in public, because the legal experts Salon spoke with said that while Barr was clearly being dishonest, he probably won't be going down for perjury.

“Perjury is very hard to convict people on, because you have to show that someone actually knew what they were saying was false," explained William Yeomans, a civil rights lawyer who spent 26 years with the Department of Justice and now works for Alliance for Justice

"Barr has displayed great skill in evading questions, in giving incomplete answers to questions, in spinning the contents of the Mueller report through his press conference, through a summary, etc.," said Paul Ryan, vice president of policy and litigation at Common Cause. "But he seems like he's also been very skilled in avoiding perjuring himself."

During Wednesday's hearing, Barr gave dodgy, unwieldy answers to questions about his previous communications, where he focused on issues like the difference between Mueller himself and Mueller's team to justify his previous claims of ignorance. This show of wordy dexterity drew an exasperated response from Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., who accused Barr of "masterful hairsplitting".

What Barr was doing is what ordinary laymen using "a good English word" would call "lying." But he did so with verbal gymnastics that likely allowed him to squirm out of being held to the legal standard of perjury.

That doesn't mean that Trump's opponents should give up their dream of watching a Bill Barr perp walk live on CNN.

"I think that he has other problems," Yeomans said, noting that Barr is declining to turn over subpoenaed documents and flatly refused to show up at Thursday's House Judiciary Committee hearing

"It seems to me pretty clear that the committee's going to hold him in contempt," Yeomans added. 

The irony is that these potential contempt charges are likely due to concerns that the perjury tightrope walk can't be maintained forever. Maintaining the ludicrous White House line of "no collusion, no obstruction" caused Barr, on multiple occasions, to run a serious risk of failing to parse his way out of perjury during his testimony on Wednesday. He also came tantalizingly close when Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., asked him if he had communicated with the White House about other federal investigations into Trump. After Barr first said no, he swiftly backtracked and modified his answer into one that is more perjury charge-resilient.

On Friday, former special prosecutor and stalwart Republican Ken Starr complained on Fox News that testifying in front of the House is a "perjury trap," as if Democrats are oppressing Barr by expecting him to be an honest public servant instead of a liar running defense for a criminal president.

But at least this is an admission that Barr can't keep the hairsplitting tap dance up forever. At some point, he'll get exhausted or Democrats will come up with a question he can't parse his way out of, and he'll slip. That's why, as Starr tacitly admits, Barr is now refusing to show up altogether.

Trump, Barr and other Republicans are likely betting that Democrats don't have the wherewithal to charge Barr for contempt, much less create real consequences for his behavior. Indeed, House Judiciary Committee chair Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., just said he'll offer Barr another chance to set things right. And Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., just ate a bunch of fried chicken on camera to taunt Barr for being a "chicken."

"This is a pretty far cry from the days of Watergate, when Senator Sam Ervin, the chairman of the select committee charged with investigating presidential crimes, threatened to have the Senate sergeant-at-arms arrest Nixon administration officials who refused to testify," Alex Shephard of the New Republic writes. "But so far, House Democrats have not similarly tested the Trump administration’s mettle."

Trump's allies are, in fact, gloating that the Democrats are the real chickens here, squawking pointlessly and afraid simply to arrest Barr for contempt. Thursday's headline at Breitbart mockingly blared, "Empty Threat: Nadler Punts on Contempt Citation After Barr Skips House Hearing."

The response to this kind of nose-thumbing at the rule of law simply can't be eating more fried chicken. Barr clearly has nothing but contempt for the rule of law and his constitutional duty to serve the public. Since he has no shame, public shaming is a weak and ineffectual weapon. Instead, Democrats need to start speaking a language that Barr, Trump and the entire hive of cover-up artists at the White House can understand: The language of the cops showing up at your home to arrest Barr and make him testify.

If Democrats keep shying away from that kind of force, Barr and Trump will only get bolder and bolder in their defiance of the law. This isn't just about giving the Democratic base delicious pictures of a perp walk — although, honestly, they deserve it as a reward for their faith. It's about stopping this already existing constitutional crisis from spiraling even further out of control.

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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