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By Elie Honig
Regular readers of this column will know: I’m not the biggest fan of Bill Barr. I’ve had some harsh words for him in this space — “sycophant,” “liar,” “pretender,” and other colorful but well-deserved descriptors. Oh, and I also wrote a book about him titled Hatchet Man. Why mince words?
In that book, I examine Barr’s tenure as attorney general under Donald Trump from early 2019 to late 2020. As the book’s title suggests, I argue that Barr was a wickedly dishonest and thoroughly corrupt operator.
Now we’ve gotten a glimpse into new materials that are uniquely revealing about Barr’s stint as attorney general: his texts. The Justice Department released a batch of his texts last week in response to a Freedom of Information Act and, boy oh boy, are they cringeworthy. The texts give us a firsthand glimpse at an attorney general who eagerly exploited DOJ to serve Trump’s electoral prospects, who wouldn’t make a key decision without first running it by the White House, and who was vain and insecure about his public perception. I skewer Barr in my book, no holds barred. After reading his own words in the texts, I feel even more justified.
I have a bit of sympathy for Barr here. (Just a bit.) It’s got to feel invasive to have the texts from your phone suddenly available to the world over the internet. (If my texts ever became public, readers would quickly tire of my kids and I going back and forth on what time they need to be picked up from soccer.) On the other hand, the guy created written records about official business while serving as attorney general. He should have been smart enough to know that his texts were public records, hence potentially disclosable. (Some of Barr’s texts are even mildly humanizing. Twice, he pleads guilty to “butt dialing” others; another time, he apparently tried to respond to an update with the word “good” but mis-typed it and got auto-corrected to “zoo.” Hey, we’ve all been there.)
Relatable typos aside, the texts are downright pathetic and embarrassing, for Barr and for the Justice Department that he once led. They expose Barr’s mindset towards the AG job: his insecurity, his pettiness, his eagerness not just to please Trump but to use the Justice Department as an extension of the Trump 2020 political campaign.
Indeed, despite his efforts to cultivate an image as an old-fashioned public servant who didn’t give a whit about what people said about him, Barr in fact closely monitored his media exposure — and the extent to which his actions pleased the Trump campaign. For example, in one exchange in late May 2020, DOJ Press Secretary Kerri Kupec triumphantly informed Barr that his press statement about public protests against police violence had been retweeted by “Don Jr., Brad Parscale,” and “Kayleigh” — referring to the then-President’s son, campaign manager, and press secretary, respectively.
Kupec also explained that she had been working with reporters to explain how Barr’s statement “squares with the POTUS tweet.” Barr responded, “Hoping for more retweets.” Yes, folks: the Attorney General of the United States made a public statement on a vital issue, eagerly watched to see whether Trump’s political minions approved of it, and then held his breath hoping for even more retweets by MAGA royalty. That’s just embarrassing. And keep this telling exchange in mind for all the times Barr has protested (and surely will continue to insist) that he never took politics into consideration as AG.
These texts are consistent with revelations in two outstanding new books about the Trump administration, Frankly, We Did Win This Election by Michael Bender and I Alone Can Fix It by Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker. Both books detail how, on occasion, Barr spoke with Trump specifically to give him political advice about how best to campaign and appeal to voters, drawing on the lessons of prior Republican presidents. It’s a mid-level revelation in both books, given the scope of other Trump scandals, but it jumped off the page to me. Barr, as attorney general, served as a political and electoral consultant to the President. Again: so much for Barr’s political impartiality.
It gets worse. At one point last summer, as the Trump administration strained to make political hay out of ongoing nationwide protests and to frighten the American public about the threat of Antifa, Barr played right along. He issued a public statement declaring, “In many places, it appears the violence is planned, organized, and driven by anarchistic and far left extremists, using Antifa-like tactics…” (Barr’s Justice Department would indict not a single alleged member of Antifa in protest-related violence, though it would eventually charge several members of right-wing extremist groups.)
At one point, as Trump and Barr carried out this performative two-man public waltz of nonsense, Trump formally declared (by tweet) that “[t]the United States of America will be designating Antifa as a Terrorist Organization” — a “designation” with zero legal backing or significance. Here’s where the texts are so revealing. Publicly, Barr played right along: he proclaimed in lockstep with Trump that that “violence instigated and carried out by Antifa and other similar groups in connection with the rioting is domestic terrorism and will be treated accordingly.” Yet, behind the scenes, Barr acknowledged that it was all bullshit: “There is no such thing as ‘designating’ a domestic group,” he noted to Kupec, correctly.
Barr’s texts with White House Counsel Pat Cipillone are particularly bizarre and inappropriate. Barr texted Cipillone seven times from May 2019 to June 2020. Each of Barr’s texts is one line long, and five of the seven are identical: “Can I call you later?” Cipillone never responded in writing to any of the texts. At a minimum, this shows the AG and White House counsel coordinating in some way that they did not feel comfortable reducing to writing.
Worse though, on January 30, 2020, Barr texted to Cipillone simply, “You are a STAR.” (All-caps Barr’s.)
What was going on that day? The (first) impeachment trial of Donald J. Trump. In fact, that very day, it became clear that enough Republican Senators would vote against calling witnesses to effectively end the trial and ensure Trump’s acquittal. Barr — who should have had no role or stake whatsoever in the impeachment, and who conspicuously refused even to open an investigation into the Ukraine scandal — was downright ebullient. A few days later, Barr would attend Trump’s bizarre post-acquittal rally in the White House. Again: I can rail all day long about Barr being a political hack, but nothing speaks as loudly as Barr’s own words and actions.
None of this is the worst of Barr. No text message could measure up to his lying to the American public repeatedly, twisting facts and law to save Trump from the Mueller investigation, interfering in criminal cases to help Trump’s lackeys, or spreading Trump’s lie about the risk of election fraud. But they flesh out and confirm the worst of Barr’s instincts and abuses.
We’ve long known that Barr abused his position as attorney general for crassly political purposes. Now his own texts confirm it.