Is Bill Barr a bad man?

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
Rod Rosenstein, William Barr and President Trump (Yahoo News photo illustration; photos: AP, Getty Images)

History will record that, during the tumultuous period known as the Descent Into Trumpism, one William Barr came out of semi-retirement to return to the august job he held 25 years earlier, vowing to restore stability and to follow the facts wherever they might lead, and instead found himself lying to the public in defense of the president and fending off a contempt order from Congress on his way to an ignominious retirement.

Which is fine with Barr, apparently, because in a remarkable interview with “CBS This Morning” last week, the attorney general insisted he doesn’t much care about history’s judgment anyway.

“Everyone dies,” he said, which is true, unless you’re an immortal, soul-sucking vampire sent forth from the netherworld under the guise of a bespectacled, kind-faced public servant, to wreak centuries of mayhem among humankind by extinguishing the last hopeful embers of enlightened self-government.

So I guess we’ll just have to see about that.

I’m joking. I actually don’t agree with critics who say that Barr is a bad man whose only goal all along was to rescue President Trump — an evil man who abets evil acts, as a friend of mine passionately argued to me this week.

I don’t believe that after a lifetime of distinguished service to his country, Bill Barr woke up one morning and decided that all this business about law and truth was getting in the way of his wicked designs.

No, to me, Barr’s strange odyssey — along with the tragic arcs of other well-bred lawyers who’ve served the president in senior roles, most notably Don McGahn and Rod Rosenstein, whose reputations will never fully recover — brings to mind the small cadre of liberal intellectuals to whom the late David Halberstam, in a book published nearly a half century ago, infamously attached the label “The Best and the Brightest.”

They too were capable and decent men who allowed their capabilities and decency to become lost in a void of self-delusion.

Halberstam, as fine a journalist as ever lived, told the story of Robert McNamara and the Ivy League “whiz kids” who became architects and then defenders of the Vietnam War. These men were deeply invested in a Cold War ideology — specifically, the idea that the spread of communism had to be contained, because otherwise free countries would fall like dominoes into the hands of Soviet tyrants.

So arrogant were they about their own ability to shape events, so persuaded of their own rightness and analytical brilliance, that they blinded themselves to all contrary evidence. And, ultimately, they came to accept the idea that some shady dealing — including lying to the American people about what was actually happening in East Asia — was the necessary cost of protecting democracy.

To be clear, Trump’s presidency isn’t Vietnam. The consequence to this point is nowhere near as tragic as a war in which more than 50,000 American service members died, and the goals are nowhere near as lofty or as clear as saving the planet from slavery.

But there are similarities here nonetheless.

I really don’t think the charcoal-suited, striped-tie-wearing establishment lawyers who’ve served this president with such shamelessness are huge personal fans of the Trump family syndicate. It’s a good bet that most of Trump’s illiterate tweets make them nauseous.

But you know that each of these accomplished lawyers told himself a story about why he needed to serve this president and what was at stake for party and country. The stories differed somewhat, but in each case they started with an ideology.

I’m sure Barr told himself that the singular role of the executive, something he spent a career trying to defend, was in peril — that however much Trump might undermine the rule of law with a boneheaded statement here and there, the greater threat came from liberals who were now trying to curb his power and would leave the presidency forever weakened if they succeeded.

(And just by the way, as I wrote here, I don’t disagree with Barr that there’s a genuine danger in the left’s assaults on presidential power generally.)

I’m sure McGahn told himself that someone had to protect Trump from his own amateurish instincts and safeguard the integrity of the White House.

I suppose Rosenstein, who was universally admired as a U.S. attorney under administrations of both parties, told himself that it was crucial to protect the rule of law at a moment of arch-partisanship — that the nation badly needed someone who had the acumen to serve both Trump and the cause of justice at the same time.

All of them thought the executive branch itself needed protecting, from both Trump and his ruthless opposition, and decided they would stand guard until the danger had passed. Trump’s top lawyers — the Not Quite Best and Pretty Bright — thought they could control events in the capital.

But they couldn’t. They lost their way. And soon they found themselves, like McNamara and the whiz kids, embracing alternate realities in defense of the mission.

McGahn insisted his client was innocent of obstructing justice even as the president ordered him to do exactly that. (McGahn refused, so everything’s fine.) Barr, with Rosenstein backing him up, decided to go out and tell the world that the Mueller report had unearthed no compelling evidence of collusion or obstruction on the part of the president, even though both men knew the truth was more complicated.

The right thing to do, at some point, was to walk away. To say: “I took this job to defend the integrity of the process, and I can’t accomplish that if I’m lying and abetting immoral behavior.”

But then who would save the republic from ruining itself? What’s a lie or two when the institution of the presidency itself hangs in the balance?

Lawyers have a saying: Hard cases make for bad law. In other words, the more unusual and extreme the circumstances, the more damaging the precedent it sets for all the other cases to follow.

Barr and the others should have realized that Trump is as hard a case as there is.

You were never going to preserve the integrity of the presidency by defending the least honest, most reckless example of presidential leadership we’ve ever seen. You can’t shore up the institutions of government by enabling a man who wants to dismantle them.

Trump isn’t the case you seize on to uphold precedent. He’s the case you call an outlier and toss aside.

Near the end of his life a decade ago, Robert McNamara finally admitted his mistakes. In both a memoir and a documentary, he grappled with his own guilt and sought some redemption for his misguided, willful blindness.

He was largely mocked and derided instead.

Everyone dies — I’ll give you that, General. But not everyone is forgiven, or manages in the end to forgive himself.

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