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Stressing that a "standoff" between Trump and Attorney General Bill Barr had "intensified" in recent days, the Beltway press spent this week whipping itself into a mini-frenzy, suggesting some sort of dramatic showdown was looming on the horizon. This is the kind of purposefully naïve news coverage that helps normalize Trump's dangerous behavior. It also propagates the myth that Republicans like Barr are actually concerned by Trump's destructive ways.
The modest public jousting between the two men this week came after Trump eviscerated the Department of Justice with lots of shouty tweets. Trump's furious that his former adviser Roger Stone is now facing more than three years in prison after being convicted of felonies in connection to the 2016 election.
Prompted by anonymous Barr aides, new outlets really leaned into the idea that the Trump/Barr relationship was at the breaking point. "Barr had a previously scheduled lunch with the White House counsel Tuesday and was still the attorney general by day’s end." The Washington Post reported, suggesting Barr might be ousted or quit his post. The New York Times agreed: "Mr. Barr was left by the end of the day to consider his own future." And NPR had the same take, reporting that "Attorney General William Barr has told people close to him that he has considered resigning."
Question: How unsophisticated can our press corps be? Let's cut through the spin and recall that Barr was specifically hired to protect Trump from legal peril, because Barr had essentially promised that Trump would never be indicted as long as Barr oversaw the DOJ. The idea that Trump would now get rid of his legal backstop makes no sense. And so too, is the idea that Barr would make a stand on principle and resign.Yet Barr has fueled that storyline by waging a public relations offensive, and the Beltway press has been an eager, compliant player in the production. Playing the straight man/woman, the press has obediently reported that Barr is deeply concerned about Trump's attack, and that Barr basically can't sleep at night knowing that the department's independence is being compromised.
This is a kabuki theater production, and not a very good one at that. Still, the Beltway press is playing along, writing in hushed tones about how Barr is deeply upset by Trump's behavior. We know because anonymous sources close to Barr say so! "He has his limits,” said one person familiar with Barr’s thinking," the Post dutifully reported.
The p.r. offensive began last week when Barr gave an interview to ABC News where he timidly complained that Trump's tweets attacking the DOJ, “make it impossible for me to do my job.” The Beltway press corps was stunned, or at least pretended to be.
The Washington Post called the "assertion of independence" "remarkable" because, wow, Barr had criticized Trump!! CNN legal analyst Jim Baker cheered, “This is the Bill Barr that I’m familiar with…This is sort of the strong, independent leader a person of integrity and intelligence, and speaking out loudly for his troops.” And CBS News announced it was a “forceful and unexpected challenge to President Trump."
But you know what's actually "remarkable?" The fact that the President of the United States is publicly attacking a federal judge, prosecutors, and even the jury foreman connected to a case involving the president's former adviser who was convicted of obstruction of justice and witness tampering in connection to his role in the 2016 campaign. That's remarkable, not the idea that the attorney general would meekly complain about the president's harassment.
Is it possible Barr would move beyond platitudes and take drastic action and stand up to Trump? Sure, but I think the chances are slim and none, and slim's out of town. Folks, Barr's job today is essentially to protect Trump and his colleagues from criminal prosecution. Plus, if he actually cared about Trump’s unprecedented and un-democratic attack on the Department of Justice, Barr would have resigned long ago. Or, Barr would loudly and forcefully denounce Trump, in public and on the record.
What's worse though, is that all this stenography boosts the idea that Barr is an honorable, ethical man who's struggling with his conscience as Trump interferes. Nope, nope, and nope. It was Barr who aggressively ran interference for the White House when the Mueller report on Russian election interference was released last year. Barr released a brazenly false three-page press release that insisted the investigation had exonerated Trump. It was Barr who then weeks later categorically lied about the contents when the Mueller report was released to the public.
So why this type of weak media coverage? Part of what's going on is the D.C. press clinging to the fantasy that the GOP in the age of Trump is still populated with lots of highly ethical people who are deeply, deeply troubled by Trump's erratic behavior, and they continually struggle with their moral compass over what to do about it.
For three years, the press has presented his fantasy take on the Republican Party, even though reporters can't actually find examples of Republicans, certainly not Republicans in Congress or in the administration, who suffer from these debilitating internal battles. I mean, Republicans just acquitted Trump on articles of impeachment, one of which accused him of seeking the help of a foreign government for the 2020 election, despite the fact Trump admitted to doing it.
So no, spare us the tales of tortured Republicans. Barr is Trump's fixer. Period.