William Pelham Barr first served as US Attorney General under President George H. W. Bush. He became a friend of Jeb Bush, supported his campaign for governorship of Texas, and planned to support his 2016 Republican presidential nomination campaign. Barr reacted negatively to Donald J Trump’s June 2015 announcement that he would seek the Republican nomination. He writes, ‘I suspected, based on his meandering positions over the years, that Trump was a political opportunist who had no real political convictions and for whom policy positions were a matter of political expedience.’
In this highly informative, well-written, book, Barr details his childhood and his extensive career in the law. In November 2018, Trump’s Attorney General, the former senator for Alabama, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III resigned. Barr was on the verge of retiring when he was sounded out by friends and colleagues on behalf of Trump. He describes his ensuing meeting with the President and why he accepted the President’s invitation to succeed Sessions. He informed Trump that he would only return as Attorney General on the clear understanding that he would not tolerate any political interference in criminal cases. Barr’s willingness to do so was reinforced by his existing friendship with and respect for his confirmed Deputy, Rod Rosenstein.
In this age of incessant outrage in and beyond the US about that confected notion ‘hate speech’, there seems to be no limit to the hatred which Trump has attracted since Mrs Clinton’s ‘basket of deplorables’ helped elect him. One contribution to the torrent of vituperation was that of a woman who in May 2017 exercised her First Amendment constitutional right to free speech by disseminating online a photograph of herself holding a bloodied, severed head of President Trump. It produced a cacophony of hurrahs among the Trump haters. There was certainly no suggestion that it might have been seditious or an incitement to insurrection.
There is no reason to doubt Barr’s assertion that he ‘did not go into government to be popular with Trump, but to ensure that law was applied fairly, and [Trump] got his due as President’. Barr had come to the conclusion that the ‘Russiagate’ collusion conspiracy theory was inherently nonsensical, not least because of what Barr regarded as the absurd Steele dossier. This was underpinned by Barr’s assessment that some high officials of the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had been drawn into ‘the political maelstrom’ of the anti-Trump ‘Russiagate collusion narrative’. More than US$30m was expended on the investigation of the collusion conspiracy theory conducted by Robert S Muller III, a very experienced lawyer with whom Barr was well acquainted but who, sadly, seemed to be declining.
During his 23 months as Attorney General, Barr appointed Muller as Special Counsel in his ongoing investigation. The two-volume Muller Report of alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election was released by Barr (with few redactions) in April 2019. It made clear that there was no evidence establishing a conspiracy or collusion between ‘the Russians’ and Trump and failed to come to any conclusion on the allegation that Trump had engaged in criminal obstruction of justice in the investigation of a non-existent conspiracy. In Barr’s words, Trump’s enemies ‘could not abide the fact that he had won the election fair and square’. Anyone interested in going beyond the report should read the decisions of the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court on the applications for warrants for 2016 Trump campaign worker Carter Page, and the report of the US Inspector General of Security on the deception practised on that Court by one DOJ lawyer who pleaded guilty. The recent acquittal of another lawyer (in private practice) of having lied to the FBI on behalf of the Clinton presidential campaign produced much gloating in the anti-Trump camp but led to the release of trial documents which may advance the case that the Russiagate ‘narrative’ emanated from the 2016 Clinton presidential campaign with high-level assistance from the DOJ and the FBI.
Barr’s account of the early stages of his dealings with the President is one side of a relationship between two men who at the highest level of US government managed to achieve a working equilibrium even though, psychologically, they had almost nothing in common. The President mostly accepted Barr’s advice and did not interfere with his work. However, as the 2020 election neared, especially after the Covid outbreak, the relationship soured, and Barr (who has a big appetite for hard work) had only sporadic, and then no contact with the President. Trump went to an ‘outside coterie’ for legal advice.
In early December, Barr told the President that he had no choice but to resign which he did on 23 December. He had formed the view that there may have been irregularities in the processing and counting of ballots that warranted official investigation but he considered the claims that the election had been stolen were unfounded. He was saddened and disgusted to witness the President’s ‘despicable treatment of Vice President Mike Pence’.
That Barr expressed his opinion to the House Judiciary Committee inquiry into the 6 January ‘Insurrection’ should not bolster that partisan spectacle — at least for anyone who reads Barr’s book closely.
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The author is a Melbourne barrister.
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