Trump was reportedly 'startled' to hear his attorney general nominee is close friends with Mueller — here's what that means

Despite President Donald Trump's claims — which echoed some false reports in the media — former FBI Director James Comey and Special Counsel Robert Mueller are not and never have been friends. According to Comey, they've had a respectful working relationship and cordial interactions, perhaps even a meal together while they worked in the Justice Department, but they are not, he has said, "friends in any social sense."

Mueller is, however, quite good friends with William Barr, the once and likely future attorney general.

At his congressional hearing on Tuesday, Trump's nominee to be the head of the Justice Department said that he had told the president of his relationship with the special counsel: "I told him how well I knew Bob Mueller and that the Barrs and Muellers were good friends and would be good friends when this was all over."

According to a new CNN report, Trump was startled when he heard Barr say this, though it isn't likely to derail the nomination.

Trump, of course, deeply fears Mueller and has run a misinformation campaign, of which the claim that he's friends with Comey is only a part, in an attempt to discredit the investigation of himself and his campaign. And Trump fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions because he refused to improperly interfere in the special counsel's investigation. So it's not surprising that it would be disconcerting to him that Barr is actually friends with Mueller, and would therefore, it seems, also be unlikely to interfere in the investigation.

But it's worth treating the CNN report with some skepticism. While there's no reason to doubt the CNN reporters' integrity and accuracy in the story, we know that sometimes administration officials leak information for their own purposes. It's possible the White House wanted the story about Trump's supposed surprise at Barr's relationship with Mueller to be put out there.

Why would the White House want this? Consider the predicament Trump was in when he fired Sessions. He made it known that he wanted Sessions out because of his recusal from the Mueller probe. But that means, with Sessions out, he has to be able to put someone back in charge of the Justice Department who will take control of the probe but who won't look like a Trump crony.

Barr, in many ways, fits the bill perfectly. As a former attorney general under President George W. Bush, he is respected within the Republican Party establishment, which is already predisposed to look favorably on a Trump nominee.

At the same time, there's good reason to believe he'll be on Trump's side in a fight against Mueller. He is known to have an expansive view of executive power, a view that, if accepted, could lessen Trump's legal and political vulnerabilities. He also, bizarrely, sent around a legal memo over the summer purporting to attack Mueller's theory of obstruction of justice, what many view as essentially an application for the attorney general job. And he's made clear that he buys into some of the most ridiculous Fox News right-wing conspiracy theories, which Trump loves.

To remain credible enough to pass the Senate, though, Barr played down all those aspects of his history during his hearing, while also providing cagey enough answers to avoid boxing himself in to almost any course of action once he becomes attorney general. The fact that he's friends with Mueller may even give lawmakers a presumption that he'll treat the investigation fairly — even though he has already attacked in on the record.

On this theory, the report that Trump was "startled" to hear about Barr's ties to Mueller, true or not, would serve to reassure wavering senators that he won't be the president's yes-man and help him cover up wrongdoing.

There is, of course, an alternative reading of Barr's nomination that suggests he really will be an independent constitutional officer. Trump actually isn't that good at picking nominees to carry out his wishes. He appointed Sessions, after all, and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller in the first place. He appointed FBI Director Christopher Wray to replace Comey, and Wray has repeatedly defended the bureau from Trump's attacks.

So it's not too implausible to believe that Trump picked Barr, perhaps on outside advice, despite the fact that Barr has no intention of acceding to the president's desires with regard to the investigations arrayed against him. Maybe Barr did, indeed, tell Trump of his relationship to Mueller, and Trump just forgot about it or it slipped his mind.

For those who care about the rule of law and that the integrity of investigations into the president are protected, they should hope that this second theory about Barr's appointment is correct. If it isn't, then the Senate is almost certain to approve an attorney general who is determined to protect the president, come what may.


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