Attorney General William Barr testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., May 1, 2019. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)Successfully winning a battle in an ongoing spin war is not a “cover-up,” never mind a “crime.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays.
Dear Reader (Including Jacob Wohl, who might need help with the big words),
I’m leaving in a little while to chaperone a New York City weekend get-together for my daughter and 15 other 16-year-olds. So . . . pray for me. This might mean that this week’s “news”letter is not only abbreviated but also a bit snitty.
Speaking of snitty — and I don’t mean the eighth dwarf — I really don’t want to write about the Bill Barr brouhaha bedeviling the Beltway Brahmins, but alliteration beckons and beguiles, perforce the professional pundit proceeds with perhaps pusillanimous, perchance pugnacious, pontification on the pending pertinent predicaments.
Sorry, I won’t do that again.
You know that feeling when you and your fellow Knights Templar are sitting around drinking absinthe-flavored Fresca watching turtles play chess, but no one else notices that the bigger turtle, which is actually a rare breed of parrot that likes to wear unlicensed Phish concert T-shirts, brings its queen out way too early? No wait, that’s a different feeling. A somewhat related one is when everybody is screaming about stuff you don’t think is scream-worthy.
That’s how I feel about this Barr stuff. On the substance, I mostly fall in with my colleagues on this one. Bill Barr stands accused of a heinous cover-up. But he didn’t actually cover up anything. He wrote a letter that characterized the findings of the Mueller report in terms that were favorable to the president, but not inaccurate. The monster! He then released the report less than a month later with minimal and, by most objective accounts, perfectly reasonable redactions.
In the long history of attorneys general playing the role of political fixers and cronies, this doesn’t seem to amount to much. George Washington’s first — “handpicked” — attorney general, Edmund Randolph, served as a political operative and confidante of the president. JFK appointed his 35-year-old, unqualified brother to run interference for him. FDR’s first AG was a former head of the DNC who spent much of his tenure concocting dubious constitutional arguments to give the boss wartime powers over the economy. If you’ve seen Boardwalk Empire, you probably know that Harding’s AG, Harry Daugherty, was a piece of work.
Give Me Narrative or Give Me Death
Anyway, Eli Lake asks a good question:
So what are Democrats so upset about? Is it that they lost a precious 25 days — from March 24 to April 18 — to spin Mueller’s findings to their liking? This is worse than Watergate! They will never get those news cycles back.
E. J. Dionne has the answer: Yes, that is exactly what they are upset about:
It’s not good enough that a redacted version of the report was eventually made public. For 27 days, the debate over Mueller’s findings was twisted by Barr’s poisonous distortions that implied a full exoneration of President Trump. Many public statements and much punditry were devoted to insisting that Trump’s opponents owed the president an apology, that the Russia matter was never what it was cracked up to be, that the president was free and clear.
Back to Eli:
This complaint is not only picayune but also hypocritical. Since Trump won the 2016 election, the narrative (that word again) that he might be a Russian asset or may have conspired with Russia has been a near article of faith for the resistance. If Democrats can chastise Barr for spinning Mueller’s report for 25 days, then why can’t Republicans ask why Mueller didn’t end all the speculation about a Trump-Russia conspiracy as soon as he found out it wasn’t true?
Much like that time the border patrol opened my car’s trunk during my Bolivian-tree-frog-smuggling phase, a few things jump out at me.
The first is that Eli says it was 25 days and E. J. says it was 27. I will not adjudicate this because I was promised there would be no math. But I am tempted to split the difference Salvador Dali style and say it was melting clock number of days.
Second, I think E. J. has a point, I just think it’s a strange one to get so angry about. Barr did throw a monkey wrench into the gears of the juggernaut of the media-industrial complex. I have no quarrel with folks who think Barr overstepped in an effort to blunt the spin of the report. But Mueller declined to make a call on obstruction, leaving that up to Bill Barr. He decided not to pursue charges of obstruction for debatable, but certainly defensible, reasons. Once he made that decision, it would be odd for him to lend aid and comfort to those who would disagree with it no matter what.
But the really amazing part is the way the imperative of narrative is overpowering everything else. I’m with Eli in being a little exhausted with the thumbsuckery about narratives these days. But this is remarkable. Barr’s “cover up” amounts to accurately describing the conclusions of the Mueller report, but not in a way that would have chummed the water for the media and the Democrats.
This is a categorical change in the way we normally talk about scandals. Dionne — along with many others — is sincerely outraged that pundits were denied their preferred column fodder for 27 days. Mueller himself also seems perturbed that the Barr letter contributed to a narrative that was less hostile to Trump than the one he wanted. And, to be honest, I get it. I think the Mueller report is far more damning of the Trump administration than the pro-Trump narrative-crafters claim. But successfully winning a battle in an ongoing spin war is not a “cover up,” never mind a “crime.”
The assumption seems to be that a great opportunity to gin up public outrage was lost by Barr’s chicanery and that it now unfairly falls to the Democratic House to make its case on the merits. I get why partisans would be pissed off about that. I can recount countless examples of Bill Clinton winning spin battles with similar “cheating” during his impeachment struggles. But at the end of the day, winning a spin cycle is not an affront to the Constitution.
One last thing. I do think many criticisms of Barr have some merit, but I am deeply skeptical of the various theories about his motivations. All of this talk about how Trump has finally found his Roy Cohn or Eric Holder strikes me as another form of narrative maintenance. If someone does something that is beneficial to Trump, it must be proof that they’ve gone over to the Dark Side or some such. But it still strikes me as possible, indeed probable, that Barr’s motivations are nobler. Remember the anonymous op-ed in the New York Times? The author said he was one of many administration officials working to blunt or thwart the president’s “worst inclinations.” Don McGahn arguably saved the Trump presidency by refusing to do some of the “crazy sh**” Trump wanted him to do. Gary Cohn reportedly stopped Trump from pulling out of NAFTA and a trade deal with South Korea by snatching the paperwork from his desk. I know too many people in the administration who see themselves as doing the right things despite Trump, not because of him, to immediately assume everyone in there is a less stupid Jacob Wohl.
It is not obvious to me that Barr’s actions aren’t consistent with these kinds of efforts. Who knows what Barr had to do to get Trump’s permission to release the Mueller report in a timely manner? The widespread assumption is that Barr wrote that memo about the Mueller probe as a way to curry favor with the administration. Maybe. But it’s also possible that he sincerely believed the Mueller probe was fatally flawed on the merits, as many of my friends around here believe as well. Maybe he is trying to salvage the Department of Justice as an institution. The public facts make this seem preposterous to people who think that anything that is good for Trump must not only be bad but also come from bad motives. Barr has certainly taken a reputational hit since he became attorney general — a job he didn’t need — but we don’t know what he is getting for paying that price. But the history of all this has yet to be written, and I’m willing to hold off final judgment until it is — or at least until we have better facts than the ones currently on offer.
Various & Sundry
There’s a bunch more stuff I wanted to write about today, but I don’t want to start stuff I won’t be able to finish before I have to head to New York. So my unconventional take on the media’s labelling of Louis Farrakahn as a “rightwinger” will have to wait. As will my fairly conventional theory about the head of Alfredo Garcia.
Meanwhile, if you’re still feeling intellectually peckish after this “news”letter, you might want to nosh on my lengthy essay for the special capitalismpalooza issue of National Review. It may well be my last piece for the magazine — as a senior editor. I hope to still grace (and be graced by) NR’s pages in the future.
It’s been a good week for The Remnant podcast. For episode 100 (?) I talked with the great Thomas Sowell. For episode 101 (?) I finally convinced my bride, The Fair Jessica, to talk with me about her career as an author and ghostwriter, her roots in Alaska, our shared dog-love, and a host of other topics (warning: I apparently giggled a lot). Going by the feedback on Twitter, it was one of the most popular episodes ever. The latest installment features my friend and colleague Michael Brendan Dougherty, discussing his book, staggered identity, Ireland, and the disenchantment of the world.
Canine Update: The middle-age mellowing of Zoë continues apace. Kirsten our indispensable canine perambulator sent Jessica and me a text the other day: “Wow, so ZZ found some ancient bone and Obi [a member of the pack] went to investigate and all she did was tell him off. That would have been a face ripping offense once upon a time. I’m kind of proud of her.” Some evidence of Zoë’s meddling might just be a misreading of the data. She is a little overweight (we’re working on it), and so she’s lost a step when it comes to chasing rabbits and squirrels. It could be that when we get her back down to fighting weight, she will be able to add to her metaphorical necklace of critter skulls. Still, she seems more content with smelling (and occasionally eating) the flowers than she used to be and more content with scritches too. Though she still considers guarding the pack a non-negotiable part of her portfolio, even if she sometimes thinks Pippa should fight her own battles. Meanwhile, Pippa remains the indefatigable ball of energy she’s always been. As she matures, that puts a bit more pressure on us to regulate her butt-waggling spanielness since she came without any factory-installed regulator. Regardless, they’re good dogs, no matter what Comfortably Smug says. And Gracie is a good cat. When she chooses to be.
And now, the weird stuff.