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WASHINGTON — For two years, William Barr has served President Trump with exemplary loyalty. Whether it came to Robert Mueller’s report about Russian electoral interference or last year’s impeachment trial, the U.S. attorney general always stood by the president, so much so that some wondered if he was acting more as the president’s private attorney than as the nation’s chief legal officer.
As other Cabinet members departed, voluntarily or under pressure, as rumors circulated that Trump might replace Mike Pence on the 2020 ticket, Barr remained a fixture in the Trumpian universe, articulating and justifying the president’s many grievances, whether against congressional Democrats or protesters in Portland, Ore.
And Trump repaid that loyalty with frequent references to “our great attorney general.”
Barr’s immunity came to an abrupt end earlier this week, with the president criticizing the attorney general in astonishingly frank terms. “To be honest, Bill Barr is going to go down as either the greatest attorney general in the history of the country or he’s going to go down as, you know, a very sad situation,” Trump told Maria Bartiromo of Fox Business.
Trump’s frustration, which is shared by some — though by no means all — of his closest allies, stems from Barr’s recent announcement that U.S. Attorney John Durham will not issue his report on the 2016 election before Nov. 3. Trump’s allies have been hoping that Durham’s report on the origins of the FBI investigation into the Trump campaign, intended as a sort of counterargument to the Mueller report, would prove the president’s contention that he was spied on by the Obama administration to benefit Hillary Clinton.
With the president’s political fortunes sagging, some thought that Durham's report could give him the necessary boost on Election Day. But with Durham apparently still at work, that boost will have to come from elsewhere.
Durham was given the assignment in the spring of 2019, and some have wondered why he has not yet wrapped up his investigation. “I just don’t understand what he’s been doing,” says Tom Fitton, head of conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch. Fitton said he did not necessarily want Barr to be fired, but he did offer that the attorney general “needs help.” He advised the president to appoint a special counsel to look into the Obama administration’s role in the 2016 election.
One former senior administration official thought that there was little chance that Trump would actually fire Barr. Trump, he said, “is venting as he does when things don't go as he wishes. But Barr is the best he's got and firing him now would do more [electoral] damage than good.”
Trump’s first attorney general was no less loyal than Barr, if somewhat hampered in his ability to meet Trump’s demands. Jeff Sessions was the first sitting U.S. senator to endorse Trump in 2015, at a time when many were still wondering if his campaign were a kind of performance art. Once appointed as attorney general, however, Sessions found himself in the middle of the Russia investigation and had to recuse himself because of his own prior contact with the Russian ambassador to the United States.
Sessions had no choice, but Trump never forgave him for giving up control of the investigation, which was taken over by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Nor did Trump grasp that the gears of that investigation would have likely turned regardless of who was in charge, given that there was widespread concern on Capitol Hill, including from some leading Republicans, about Russia influencing an American presidential election.
The firing of Sessions devolved the Russian investigation to Rod Rosenstein, a deputy attorney general who shielded Mueller from political influence. Removing Barr would leave the Justice Department in the hands of Jeffrey Rosen, the department’s second in command. What effect that would have is unclear.
If Trump did replace Barr, presumably it would be with the expectation that Rosen “would be even more of a partisan for Trump than Barr has been,” says Joshua Geltzer, a Georgetown law professor who served as a National Security Council attorney during the Obama administration. “That may be hard to imagine given Barr's appalling politicization of DOJ, but that's what Trump will want to know. And Rosen has been low-profile, with relatively little known about him. So that's a key assessment Trump might need to make.”
The White House did not respond to multiple requests for comment, including questions about whether Trump still had confidence in Barr. Many staffers there are plainly hoping that Trump turns his attention elsewhere. With the West Wing in the midst of a coronavirus outbreak, a Supreme Court nomination battle looming and the presidential election now less than a month away, there’s not much appetite for more drama at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
But it is not Trump’s tendency to let things go. In a two hour conversation with Rush Limbaugh, he expressed frustration at the recent news that Barr was downplaying expectations of Durham’s report arriving before Nov. 3. “I think it’s terrible. I think it’s terrible,” Trump told the right-wing radio host. “If that’s the case, I’m very disappointed. I think it’s a terrible thing and I’ll say it to his face. That’s a disgrace. I think it’s a disgrace, it’s an embarrassment.”
Lamenting that Republicans “don’t play the tough game,” Trump speculated that if “this were the other side, you would have had 25 people in jail for the rest of their lives with what we found.”
Trump partisans have long maintained that surveillance of the Trump campaign — which was predicated on evidence that officials within it were in contact with Russian government or quasi-government figures — was illegal and intended to hurt Trump to the benefit of Hillary Clinton. But they are also resigned to the reality that no serious charges against Obama officials — let alone Obama himself, or Biden — is coming. “I don’t think there’s going to be any significant prosecution,” Fitton of Judicial Watch told Yahoo News.
That isn’t likely to stop Trump, who has a tendency to work the refs. He may very well be less interested in firing Barr than in trying one last time to pressure the attorney general into releasing a report that, if it is as damning as the president hopes, could swing the election in his favor. That assumes a public appetite to relitigate the particulars of the 2016 election, which may exist more in the minds of Trump’s close allies than the electorate at large.
That has not stopped Trump from amplifying fringe voices that share that concern. In recent days, the president has been assiduously retweeting conspiracy theorist Paul Sperry, who has a record of making false accusations against Democrats, as well as a history of Islamophobia. Sperry accuses federal law enforcement agencies of effectively sullying the Trump campaign and many of its top officials. All framed as “breaking” news, the tweets appear to be inventions designed to win the president’s favor.
Trump also shared a message from conservative commentator John Cardillo: “Obama knew everything,” Cardillo asserted, without offering any evidence for what it was Obama knew, and how Cardillo had learned that to be the case, or what difference it might have made to an election that Trump, after all, won.
What all this means for Barr’s future is not clear. If, as polling now indicates, Trump loses the election, speculation about that future may prove immaterial. Others, though, are eager to please the president in what could either be the closing days of his presidency or the beginning of an improbable return to fighting trim.
Among those Trump criticized in the Fox Business interview was Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, another steadfast Trump ally. Trump was upset that Pompeo had not released more of the 33,000 emails from Hillary Clinton’s time running the State Department. She left the cabinet to run for the presidency and was, in part, undone by an investigation into her use of a private email account during her time as the nation’s top diplomat.
Trump is now attempting to resurface the issue, which he believes could be effective against Biden. And so he lamented to Bartiromo of Fox Business that more of those emails had not seen the light of day.
"They're in the State Department,” the president said, “but Mike Pompeo is unable to get them out, which is very sad actually. I'm not happy about him for that reason. He was unable to get — I don't know why. You're running the State Department and you get them out. But they're in the State Department."
The message registered with Trump’s loyal Secretary of State. “We’re getting them out,” Pompeo said on Friday. “We’re going to get all this information out so the American people can see it.”
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