Bill Barr has figured out how to play the media like a fiddle
Attorney General Bill Barr won plaudits when he was nominated to lead President Donald Trump's Justice Department for being an accomplished lawyer and a conservative statesman, but his actions have proven him to be more of a Fox News-inspired politician than a legal scholar.
And in his role as attorney general, Barr has shown that he is adept at manipulating the media to spread the kind of storyline that suits his purposes, even when it isn't supported by the underlying facts.
He demonstrated this ability at his Senate testimony on Wednesday, when he generated countless headlines with the claim that "spying did occur" against Trump's campaign during the 2016 election. He was discussing the allegations, common in right-wing media, that the Obama administration improperly spied on Trump's campaign, possibly as a part of the Russia investigation that eventually was taken over by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Though many of these allegations have been spread breathlessly by conservative pundits, there's been no public substantiation of any actual wrongdoing by the Obama administration regarding the investigation.
“I think spying on a political campaign is a big deal,” Barr said. He later suggested that by "spying" he specifically meant "unauthorized surveillance."
It's long been clear that Barr is far too credulous of these kinds of right-wing conspiracy theories, and on Wednesday, he gave his stamp of approval from the attorney general's office on the unfounded narrative — and the media spread that soundbite far and wide.
"William Barr Testimony Highlights: Government ‘Spying Did Occur’ on Trump Campaign," said the New York Times. CNN's chyron read: "BARR: 'I THINK SPYING DID OCCUR' ON TRUMP CAMPAIGN." Fox News said: "BARR: I THINK SPYING ON TRUMP CAMPAIGN 'DID OCCUR.'"
But Barr later backed down from these apparently eye-popping claims, saying: “I am not saying that improper surveillance occurred. I am saying that I am concerned about it and I’m looking into it." He had also added, "I have no specific evidence that I can cite right now," even though he admitted, "a lot of this has already been investigated."
And yet the news had already dropped and been run with — which Barr surely knew.
The development played out not unlike Barr's release of his letter summarizing the "principal conclusions" of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, which did not establish a conspiracy between Trump people and the Russian government to influence the 2016 election. Barr shared this conclusion and the fact that Mueller had declined to decide whether Trump had obstructed justice while he laid out the evidence for and against such a charge; and then the attorney general interjected his own opinion, saying that he had separately concluded that Trump did not obstruct justice.
And while Barr gave Trump the headlines he craved, he continues to keep the report secret. And he admitted Tuesday that he "was not interested in putting out summaries" of the investigators' conclusions — even though the Mueller's team had itself prepared summaries for quick release. Instead, it seems, he wanted to control the public narrative with his own letter.
He pulled the same trick during his confirmation hearings for the attorney general position. He won positive attention and headlines during the hearing by promising to "provide as much transparency as I can" when the Mueller probe concluded. But now that he is attorney general, he has delayed release of the report while his own narrative proliferates, and he is working on apparently extensive redactions. It does not appear that he is taking every legal step to ensure that as much of the report is made available to Congress and the public as is possible.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, on the other hand, has at least been more upfront with the public about his views, saying at a recent event that "there are a lot of reasons not to be transparent about what we do in government.”
Barr has figured out how to speak out of both sides of his mouth — saying the words that will get the headline he wants, while admitting the truth sotto voce.