William Barr’s bullshit

As controversy swirls around some candidates’ allegedly “unrealistic” promises, it might not be a bad idea to revisit a blog post from last year entitled, “Cats are smarter than we are. Really.


William Barr

William Barr’s complaint that, “To have public statements and tweets made about the department, about our people in the department, our men and women here, about cases pending in the department, and about judges before whom we have cases, make it impossible for me to do my job,”[1] reeks of bullshit from top to bottom. As Jon Allsop writes,

[William] Barr’s ABC interview, it seems, was an effort to wind back the clock. Did it work? News stories in the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal credited him, respectively, with a “remarkable rebuke” and “striking criticism” of the president. Barr, the Times added, had “publicly challenged Mr. Trump in a way that no sitting cabinet member has.” Elsewhere, however, skepticism of Barr’s motives abounded. On CNN, Cuomo—who changed his tune on Barr during the Mueller episode—said the interview was “a slap right in Trump’s piehole” but that he suspected it was a ploy to “distract the media with the drama while ignoring the fact” of the Stone case. (Cuomo and others suggested that Trump may have authorized Barr’s criticisms—Trump’s response to them, that they didn’t bother him, was suspicious, they said, since Trump isn’t typically sanguine about expressions of disloyalty. Reporting in the Times and the Post seems to contradict this theory.) In a tweet, Ari Melber, chief legal correspondent at MSNBC, offered a pithy rewording of what Barr said: “I stand by intervening to help a convicted Trump adviser, but I wish Trump did not admit what we are doing on Twitter.”[2]

Allsop argues that it’s more likely simply that Barr is a true believer in “the centralization of presidential power—just to the point, critics say, where the president is effectively above the law”—than that he coordinated this outburst with Donald Trump.[3]

One way or another, what we’re seeing is either a culmination of or, as it seems to me, a step beyond the neoconservative theory (or at least a theory they favored when they were in power) of the unitary executive, which while consolidating considerable power in the presidency, never seemed to me to allow for the president to be entirely above the law. Neoconservatism, a backlash to the social uprisings of the 1960s and 1970s, rather deploys law (ask, whose law, passed by whom, protecting whom, from whom?), order (ask, whose order?), and proactive war—even imperialism—to protect the Amerikkkan system of so-called democracy (really a republic[4]) and capitalism from challenge, whether foreign or domestic.[5] That should leave Trump subject to legal constraint. Instead, as Allsop notes, the lesson he takes from impeachment, Susan Collins and colleagues notwithstanding,[6] is that “he can break the rules with impunity.”[7]

In any event, Trump didn’t take long to “declar[e] that he has the ‘legal right’ to ask his top law enforcement official to get involved in a criminal case,” the very sort of intervention that prompted all this.[8] It will be Barr’s response to this, if any, that I think will be most instructive.

Jon Allsop, “Angry Barr and whether the press is getting played,” Columbia Journalism Review, February 14, 2020, https://www.cjr.org/the_media_today/william_barr_roger_stone_trump.php

Matt Zapotosky and John Wagner, “Trump bucks Barr’s request to stop tweeting about Justice Dept., declaring a ‘legal right’ to seek intervention in criminal cases,” Washington Post, February 14, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-appears-to-escalate-standoff-with-attorney-general-and-justice-dept-declaring-on-twitter-a-legal-right-to-influence-criminal-cases/2020/02/14/8c152c36-4f2f-11ea-bf44-f5043eb3918a_story.html


  1. [1]William Barr, quoted in Jon Allsop, “Angry Barr and whether the press is getting played,” Columbia Journalism Review, February 14, 2020, https://www.cjr.org/the_media_today/william_barr_roger_stone_trump.php
  2. [2]Jon Allsop, “Angry Barr and whether the press is getting played,” Columbia Journalism Review, February 14, 2020, https://www.cjr.org/the_media_today/william_barr_roger_stone_trump.php
  3. [3]Jon Allsop, “Angry Barr and whether the press is getting played,” Columbia Journalism Review, February 14, 2020, https://www.cjr.org/the_media_today/william_barr_roger_stone_trump.php
  4. [4]David Benfell, “The species we must become: On direct democracy, or why its alleged bugs are features,” Not Housebroken, June 16, 2019, https://disunitedstates.org/2019/06/16/the-species-we-must-become-on-direct-democracy-or-why-its-alleged-bugs-are-features/
  5. [5]David Benfell, “Conservative Views on Undocumented Migration” (doctoral dissertation, Saybrook, 2016). ProQuest (1765416126).
  6. [6]Seung Min Kim, “These Republicans said they hope Trump has learned a lesson from impeachment. He said he hasn’t,” Washington Post, February 5, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/these-republicans-said-they-hope-trump-has-learned-a-lesson-from-impeachment-he-said-he-hasnt/2020/02/04/fa68c18c-478e-11ea-ab15-b5df3261b710_story.html
  7. [7]Jon Allsop, “Angry Barr and whether the press is getting played,” Columbia Journalism Review, February 14, 2020, https://www.cjr.org/the_media_today/william_barr_roger_stone_trump.php
  8. [8]Matt Zapotosky and John Wagner, “Trump bucks Barr’s request to stop tweeting about Justice Dept., declaring a ‘legal right’ to seek intervention in criminal cases,” Washington Post, February 14, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-appears-to-escalate-standoff-with-attorney-general-and-justice-dept-declaring-on-twitter-a-legal-right-to-influence-criminal-cases/2020/02/14/8c152c36-4f2f-11ea-bf44-f5043eb3918a_story.html

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