By Jessie Seigel / Washington, D.C.
Will former Trump Attorney General William Barr spill his guts to the House committee investigating the January 6, 2021 insurrection? And will the public get to watch?
It doesn’t appear that the committee has yet decided whether to invite Barr to testify at its public hearings beginning in June. But according to CNN sources, Barr has tentatively agreed to give sworn testimony to the committee “behind closed doors.” The committee’s chairman, Mississippi Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson, said on Face the Nation in January that the committee had already had some conversations with Barr. The former AG confirmed he had an informal conversation focused on whether he possessed information related to the Capitol attack, or the actions of former Justice Department official Jeffrey Clark.
All these negotiations would sound promising if we hadn’t seen this game played before by any number of close Trump minions who ultimately refused to testify at all, let alone under oath. Some of them refused to obey subpoenas, making the bogus claim of “executive privilege,” ostensibly based on their having worked for Trump.
Given that Barr has recently published his own tell-all book, One Damn Thing After Another: Memoirs of an Attorney General, it is doubtful that he could have any privilege basis for refusing to testify. On the other hand, Trump’s former Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, in exactly that situation, was referred for contempt of Congress to the Department of Justice (DOJ) in December 2021, and the DOJ has yet to take any action on that.
Even if Barr does testify, his predilection toward sophistry is as strong as Trump’s propensity to lie. One must suspect that the only thing the committee will get from Barr’s testimony would be a display of the fascistic philosophy that drives him and, perhaps, exposure of his hypocrisy —if he testifies publicly.
In March, while promoting his book, Barr acknowledged to NBC News concerning the January 6 attack, “I do think [Trump] was responsible in the broad sense of that word in that it appears that part of the plan was to send this group up to the Hill.” Barr added, “I think that the whole idea was to intimidate Congress, and I think that was wrong.”
But the same month, Barr said to NPR “I didn’t view it as an insurrection. I mean, I think it was a riot that got out of control.” And in response to a question about the calls to hang former Vice President Mike Pence, Barr said he “thought that that was essentially a propaganda-type thing.”
In what universe—except that of Barr, the sophist—is attempting to “intimidate Congress” and threatening to hang the Vice President if he and that institution do not overthrow the duly elected president of the United States—anything but an insurrection?
In an appearance in April on the right-wing Newsmax show, “Spicer & Co.,” Barr said he does not think Trump should be the Republican presidential nominee in 2024, adding “And I think Republicans have a big opportunity—it would be a big mistake to put him forward.”
Was this based on Trump’s instability, malfeasance, authoritarian ambitions or the horror of the policies that Trump would institute?
None of the above. It was based only on Barr’s view that Trump would not be electable.
Barr told NPR that Trump “would be one of the weaker candidates. We have a lot of young candidates who will fight for principle but don't have the sort of obnoxious personal characteristics that alienate a lot of voters."
If there’s any doubt as to which “principle” Barr wants the next nominee to fight for, he made that clear in a statement to The New York Times: “The Republicans have an impressive array of younger candidates fully capable of driving forward with MAGA’s positive agenda and cultivating greater national unity.”
In other words, Barr is all in for Trumpism—just not for Trump. He’s looking for a more effective figure to carry MAGA’s autocratic mantle. Nevertheless, if Trump gets the 2024 nomination, Barr has said he will vote for him. This despite Barr’s book describing the post-2020 election-Trump as “manic and unreasonable”; “off the rails” and as having “lost his grip.”
A recent Atlantic headline suggested that, in saying he would still vote for Trump, Barr has “embraced the darkness.” But Barr embraced the darkness long before that.
After all, as NBC noted, “Barr only got the job [as Trump’s attorney general] in significant measure by writing an unsolicited memo construing presidential power so broadly that… it would have been impossible for Trump to have done anything at all that would ever have justified Robert Mueller’s investigation [of the 2016 election].”
As attorney general, Barr acted more as Trump’s personal defense attorney than as the attorney general for the nation. But this was not merely so-called toadying up to Donald Trump. Rather, it was the extension what The New York Times has called Barr’s “maximalist view of presidential power.” In other words—Barr favors presidential dictatorship.
According to a December 2019 op-ed article by former President Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder, Barr, at a Federalist Society event a month earlier, had dismissed “the authority of the legislative and judicial branches—and the checks and balances at the heart of America’s constitutional order.”
Holder also wrote that Barr’s view of the attorney general’s role was “to serve not at a careful remove from politics, as his office demands, but as an instrument of politics — under the direct ‘control’ of President Trump.”
Holder’s take on Barr has been borne out by the latter’s numerous actions on Trump’s behalf. To name only a few: Barr personally ordered the violent dispersal of lawful protestors from Lafayette Park so Trump could have his photo-op in front a church there. He opened investigations of those investigating the Trump campaign’s 2016 coordination with Russia. And he dropped a charge against former Security Advisor Michael Flynn for lying to the FBI despite Flynn having admitted to the crime.
According to Barr, Trump’s 2019 attempt to extort Ukraine’s President Zelensky—conditioning that ally’s sorely needed American military aid on a Ukrainian investigation of the Bidens—was not extortion but only “a quid pro quo… inherent in almost all diplomacy.” Barr dismissed the impropriety of such an investigation into the president’s opponent, saying that even if it provided Trump “political benefits,” it “would also arguably advance America’s anticorruption agenda.” This projection of Trump’s corruption amounts to insult over injury.
And then, there was Barr’s distorted summary of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. Barr’s summary famously concluded that the Trump campaign did not conspire with Russia and that no determination had been made on obstruction of justice. Mueller said that Barr’s summary did not reflect the substance of the report’s findings. Barr’s summary raised serious concerns over whether he had deliberately presented the report as exonerating President Trump when findings in the redacted version of the report may have tended to incriminate him.
Barr’s many actions taken on Trump’s behalf were not departures from a formerly integrity-filled career. Rather, they were in keeping with Barr’s own autocratic ideas of government and were quite predictable, based on Barr’s prior public career.
In 1989, as the head of DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel in President George H.W. Bush’s administration, Barr wrote a legal opinion justifying rendition; that is, permitting the FBI to kidnap fugitives wanted by the U.S. government from a foreign country without the consent of that country’s government. When Barr received a congressional request for the full 1989 opinion, he refused to provide it, but instead provided a summary of principal conclusions and reasoning. And when, a year and a half later, Congress finally succeeded in subpoenaing and obtaining the full opinion, it discovered that Barr’s summary had omitted important parts of the opinion which ran counter to its conclusions.
According to a 1992 Village Voice article, in 1991, after William Barr had become Attorney General under former President George H.W. Bush, Barr hampered DOJ’s investigation of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) for fraud and illegal ownership and control of a number of American banks. He later covered for his actions by claiming in testimony before Congress that the BCCI investigation had “coordination” problems. Better to pretend incompetence than admit malfeasance.
Barr’s natural inclination toward secrecy and creation of a government controlled by one person with absolute power, along with his contempt for the rule of law, made him the perfect choice for Trump’s attorney general. It wasn’t a matter of Barr having to toady. The anomaly is that Barr refused to go along with Trump’s voter fraud lie. Given Barr’s philosophy and prior actions, it is hard to conceive that Trump’s contrived voter fraud allegations were too absurd even for him. More likely, Barr weighed the odds of getting away with the coup and did not like them.
As for what Barr might divulge at the January 6 committee hearings? Miracles happen, but I wouldn’t count on this legal leopard changing his spots. I predict that, if Barr testifies publicly, the nation will get a front row seat to his evasion, prevarication and obstruction.
Political columnist Jessie Seigel had a long career as a government attorney in which she honed her analytic skills. She has also twice received an Artist’s Fellowship from the Washington, D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her fiction, and has been a finalist for a number of literary awards. In addition, Seigel is an associate editor at the Potomac Review, a reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books, and a dabbler in political cartoons at Daily Kos. Of this balance in her work between the analytic and the imaginative, Seigel jokes, “I guess my right and left brains are well-balanced.” More on and from Seigel can be found at The Adventurous Writer, https://www.jessieseigel.com.