The attorney general of the United States is, we now know, quite sure of himself.
Exhibit A: Spying
During Senate testimony on Wednesday, William Barr was asked if, as Bloomberg News reported, he was planning to review how and why the Federal Bureau of Investigation launched an investigation into possible conspiracy involving Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and Russia.
He was indeed, he responded.
"I think spying on a political campaign is a big deal," Barr said, citing federal guidelines governing when it’s OK for intelligence agencies and law enforcement to conduct domestic political surveillance. "It’s a big deal."
"I’m not suggesting that those rules were violated, but I think it’s important to look at that," he added. "I’m not talking about the FBI necessarily but intelligence agencies more broadly."
"So you’re not suggesting, though, that spying occurred?" asked Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat.
Barr stumbled a bit in responding to that, but he found his footing.
"I don’t, well, I guess you could, I think there’s a spying did occur, yes - I think spying did occur," he said. "The question is whether it was predicated, adequately predicated. And I’m not suggesting it wasn’t adequately predicated, but I’d need to explore that."
Barr went out of his way to say that he supports and admires the FBI but that there was "probably a failure among a group of leaders there at the upper echelon." (Are you looking over your shoulders now, James Comey and Andrew McCabe?)
Barr is wading into a political and legal quagmire here and of course he knows that. He’s also, in his own soft-spoken and resolute way, dropping depth charges into the national conversation about the Trump presidency and the Trump-Russia investigation, and he knows that, too. Barr could have simply said he’s reviewing the investigation to make sure it was conducted properly but couldn’t comment beyond that. Here’s a handy sample sentence for future use: "I’m reviewing the investigation to make sure it was conducted properly. I can’t comment beyond that."
Instead, unprompted, Barr referred to what he’s examining as "spying." Spying is cloak-and-daggerish and, when it doesn’t involve foreign governments trying to game and surveil one another, it feels untoward. It’s your neighbor looking into your bedroom window, it’s an old boyfriend stalking an old girlfriend online, it’s the FBI or the Central Intelligence Agency snooping around the Trump campaign and it’s all sort of dirty.
Saying you’re looking into spying prejudices the perspective and prejudices the conversation, especially if you’re relying on gut instinct and your thoughts about all of it are just sort of a . hunch. Asked if he had any "specific of evidence that there was anything improper" in the FBI investigation or Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe, Barr said, "I have no specific evidence that I would cite right now - I do have questions about it."
"You just have some interest in this, you don’t have any evidence?" asked Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat.
"I have concerns about various aspects of it," Barr responded, noting that whether Mueller had conducted a "witch hunt" of Trump "really depends on where you’re sitting."
To clarify: Barr has no evidence of improprieties in the FBI investigation, including "spying," but wants to examine the matter anyway because he has concerns and because, as he said, he believes that spying did occur (even if he hasn’t seen evidence of it).
Well now. It’s reasonable and proper for Barr to make sure that the Justice Department, which he runs, has its house in order. It’s reasonable for him to make sure that the agency’s employees, including FBI agents, are on the straight and narrow. But it’s unreasonable and reckless for him to taint the public’s perspective about a matter of grave national concern because his Spidey-sense is tingling.
Exhibit B: No Obstruction
We’ve been here before with Barr, however. And quite recently.
On March 24, Barr rushed to exculpate Trump and his advisers in a four-page letter in which he put his personal imprint on the Mueller report before Congress or the public had even seen it. He noted that although Mueller felt his report didn’t completely exonerate the president, he also didn’t think Trump and his team engaged in a criminal conspiracy with Russia to sabotage the 2016 presidential campaign. On the other hand, Barr advised, Mueller didn’t decide whether Trump had obstructed justice. But why leave any lingering uncertainties? If Mueller hadn’t decided, Barr would. There was no obstruction, he proclaimed.
Happy days. The president took that to mean he was "completely exonerated" and went about saying so. Much criticism of Barr’s rash behavior and omniscience followed. Barr, recognizing that he may have come across as a little too sure of himself in that first letter, decided to write a second missive on March 29 that walked back some of what he said on March 24. The first letter, he wrote, was never meant to be a summary or even an "exhaustive recounting" of everything in Mueller’s report. It was just a "bottom line" conclusion.
Too late, counselor. Your decision to pollute perception of what the Mueller report contained had already gained lots of traction. I suspect your decision to label an investigation as "spying" without any evidence may have a similar effect, even if it doesn’t keep you from behaving like this again.
Why is Barr - a lawman presumably devoted to the fact pattern and dedicated to the rule of law - taking it upon himself to single-handedly and repeatedly offer subjective and definitive appraisals of the complex and troubling events that have hung over the Trump presidency? I’ll take a page from Barr and offer my own subjective and definitive take:
1. His ego is substantial and he’s having the time of his life, or
2. He has an imperial view of the presidency and doesn’t care about the character of the person who inhabits it, or
3. He’s his boss’s legal hatchet man, or
4. All of the above.
Trump has complained, notably, that Jeff Sessions didn’t act like Roy Cohn when he was attorney general. Cohn was a ruthless and sleazy attack dog who taught Trump how to weaponize the legal system to get his own way as a young developer in New York. Barr certainly isn’t anything like Cohn. But he’s trying.
Timothy L. O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion. His books include "TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald."