Take Bill Barr literally, but not too seriously. One day before his memoir was published, the former attorney general told NBC he would vote for Donald Trump for president in 2024, if Trump were the Republican nominee. For all Barr’s protestations about how the man was unsuited to the job, he continues to resist being banished from Trump’s garden.
Said differently, Barr’s memoirs are best viewed as just one more installment of Trump-alumni performance art.
As a read, One Damn Thing After Another delivers the expected. Barr gives Trump a thumbs-up for galvanizing the Republican white working-class base, satisfying social conservatives and meeting the demands of donors.
At the same time, Barr lets us know suburbia came to find Trump offensive and insists that in the end, Trump crashed and burned despite Barr’s best efforts. Ultimately, like everyone else the 45th president ceased to find useful, Barr was simply spat out – a reality his memoir does at least acknowledge.
The book is informative – to a point. As expected, Barr omits relevant facts and engages in score-settling. It’s a first-person tell-all, after all.
Barr records the suicide in federal custody of Jeffrey Epstein, predator and friend of presidents Trump and Clinton. He makes no mention of the fact that his own father, Donald Barr, gave Epstein one of his first jobs, as a high-school math teacher at the Dalton school, a tony Manhattan establishment. Even then, former students have said, Epstein creeped out young women.
Barr was attorney general for the first time under George HW Bush. In his book, he attacks Democrats and the media for their pursuit and coverage of “Iraqgate” and the US government’s extension of loan guarantees to Saddam Hussein in the run-up to the invasion of Kuwait. Barr singles out William Safire, the late Nixon speechwriter and New York Times columnist, for special condemnation.
A Clinton administration investigation cleared Barr of legal wrongdoing – a fact he rightly emphasizes. But he neglects to mention that in October 1989, Bush signed National Security Directive 26, which effectively boosted Iraq as a counterbalance to Iran. From there, things didn’t exactly work out as planned. The president and his team overly emboldened Saddam. His unprovoked land grab was an unintended consequence of a policy pivot.
Barr lets us know he grew up in a loving home, a product of a Catholic education, a player of the bagpipes. He attended the Horace Mann school in Riverdale, an affluent part of the Bronx. As Barr notes, the school was liberal and predominately Jewish.
As a Columbia undergraduate, he stood against Vietnam war protesters. His antipathy toward the radical left is longstanding. He joined the Majority Coalition, a group of students and faculty members who defended the main administration building. As recorded by the late Diana Trilling, some rioters had no qualms about trashing the school, then demanding academic honors.
Unstated by Barr is the operative campus divide, “Staten Island v Scarsdale”: conservative, often Catholic students from the blue-collar outer borough versus liberal, often Jewish students from the well-heeled suburbs. Though far from working class, Barr was firmly in the first camp.
Barr came by his conservatism organically. His father served in the second world war. His older brother fought in Vietnam. In 1964, Barr helped his dad distribute campaign literature for Barry Goldwater’s ill-fated presidential campaign. Amid the turmoil of the 60s, Barr yearned for the stability of yesterday. He still does: he is a culture warrior in a Brooks Brothers suit.
He takes shots at James Comey and Robert Mueller, key figures in the Russia investigation. Of course he does. He also takes aim at Lawrence Walsh, special counsel in Iran-Contra. Barr accuses Walsh, now dead, of torpedoing Bush’s campaign comeback in ’92 by filing election-eve charges against Casper Weinberger, Ronald Reagan’s defense secretary. Barr’s ire is understandable.
But he also offers up a full-throated defense of his own decision to drop government charges against Michael Flynn, despite the Trump ally’s guilty plea to lying to the FBI and, later, demand for martial law. Furthermore, Barr says nary a word in response to the volley of criticism he earned from the federal bench.
In spring 2020, Judge Reggie Walton, a George W Bush appointee, “seriously” questioned the attorney general’s integrity and credibility. To drive home the point, to describe Barr’s behavior over the Russia report, Walton deployed words like “distorted” and “misleading”.
Emmett Sullivan scorned Barr’s legal gymnastics over Flynn. Amy Berman Jackson ruled that the government had to turn over a memorandum it relied upon in declining to prosecute Trump. Her take was lacerating. Not only had Barr been personally “disingenuous” by announcing his decision before Mueller’s report was released, Berman Jackson said, but the Department of Justice itself had been “disingenuous to this court”.
Suffice to say, Walton, Sullivan and Berman Jackson do not appear in Barr’s book.
As luck would have it, though, Barr does take aim at Joe Biden for his stance on Russia. “Demonizing [Vladimir] Putin is not a foreign policy,” Barr writes, nor “the way grown-ups should think”.
Really? Looks like Barr didn’t have an invasion of Ukraine on his bingo card. Trump’s admiration for Putin, of course, continues.
As it turned out, Barr wasn’t alone in spilling his guts to NBC. In a letter to Lester Holt, its lead anchor, Trump wrote of his former attorney general: “He is groveling to the media, hoping to gain acceptance that he doesn’t deserve.”