Column: Bill Barr is telling the truth about Trump. Too bad it’s too little, too late

Close up of man in glasses with bemused expression
Then-Atty. Gen. William Barr in 2019.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

Former Atty. Gen. William Barr has been on a tear lately. He’s calling out his ex-boss for potential criminality and obstruction amid the evidence that Donald Trump absconded from the White House with boxfuls of government documents, including the most highly classified kind.

Barr’s truth-telling is welcome, especially since much of it is happening on Fox News, whose audience typically doesn’t get much of that about Trump. Yet the straight-talk would have been more welcome when Barr was in power, when it would have mattered more.

For the record:

9:47 a.m. Sept. 10, 2022An earlier version of this piece said Donald Ayer was then-Atty. Gen. William Barr’s deputy at the Justice Department during George H.W. Bush’s administration. The two worked together at the department, and Ayer was deputy attorney general, but Barr was not yet the attorney general.

At times, the Fox hosts seem barely able to conceal their shock, as Barr puts the lie to every Trump complaint against the Justice Department in the wake of the FBI’s court-approved search of Mar-a-Lago. “People say this was unprecedented. Well, it’s also unprecedented for a president to take all this classified information and put them in a country club, OK?,” Barr told Fox viewers last Friday.

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Jackie Calmes

Jackie Calmes brings a critical eye to the national political scene. She has decades of experience covering the White House and Congress.

Then and since, he’s said Trump repeatedly “deceived” and “jerked around” the government as it tried for more than a year to retrieve its property. He can’t think of a “legitimate reason why” Trump took the documents. He mocks Trump’s claim to have declassified everything, conjuring a wizard waving a wand over the boxed secrets.

As for whether a special master should review the material before the feds proceed with their investigation — as Trump got a Trump-appointed judge to order — Barr told the New York Times, “It’s a crock of s—.” He said the Justice Department should appeal — as it did Thursday — and predicted it would win.

“There is no scenario legally under which the president gets to keep the government documents, whether it’s classified or unclassified,” Barr said Wednesday, again on Fox News.


This is all to the good. But the damage he wrought as attorney general remains.

With Barr’s departure, Trump has lost an ardent and powerful advocate.

Dec. 14, 2020

During most of Trump’s final two years in office, Barr turned the Justice Department into the president’s personal law firm. Had Barr not deceived the nation in 2019 about the findings of the investigation of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III into Russia’s pro-Trump interference in the 2016 election — in particular about the many ways Trump allegedly sought to obstruct the investigators — Trump might have been held liable for his abuse of power by now, and humbled rather than emboldened.

Three years later, Barr’s talk of Trump’s culpability just smacks of a way to salvage his legacy (and sell his book).

Good luck with that.

Donald Ayer, who served with Barr at the Justice Department during President George H.W. Bush’s administration when Ayer was the deputy attorney general, wrote a scathing takedown of his former colleague in 2020: Barr had been “a major threat to our legal system and to public trust in it. He does not believe in the central tenet of our system — that no person is above the law.”

Does William Barr’s late-blooming lack of obeisance make up for the rest of his tenure as Donald Trump’s lackey?

Dec. 15, 2020

Ayer and other conservative lawyers joined liberals in slamming Barr for numerous sins. Among them:


Undermining Congress’ oversight and appropriations powers. Dispatching law enforcement officers nationwide after Trump called for a crackdown on racial justice protests. Overseeing the forcible eviction of peaceful protesters near the White House to allow a Bible-toting Trump to stage a photo-op. Echoing Trump’s preelection claims of vote-rigging. Reducing a recommended prison sentence for Trump flunky Roger Stone, over prosecutors’ objections. Dismissing the case against former Trump national security advisor Michael Flynn, who twice pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI in the Russia investigation. Launching a criminal investigation into the Russia investigation, which, owing to Barr’s machinations, outlived the Trump administration but has all but flopped.

And only now Barr sees Trump as a threat to the rule of law?

Thanks to Barr, the damning Mueller report has been mostly forgotten except as what Trump regularly dismisses as the “Russia, Russia, Russia hoax.” Flowing from that, the fantasy that the “deep state” is out to get Trump ensures that every other allegation against him — that he extorted a foreign leader to investigate his political rival or incited an insurrection — is instantly disbelieved by more than a third of Americans.

It’s worth briefly recalling just what Mueller actually concluded. Yes, his investigation found that Trump and his campaign did not conspire with Russia to interfere on his behalf in the 2016 election, though the Trump campaign actively welcomed the help. Barr, in his four-page distortion of Mueller’s 448-page report, omitted that last part.

Internal Justice Department communications show then-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows texted about fraud allegations to the attorney general multiple times within 10 days of the election.

June 30, 2022

Mueller also outlined nearly a dozen ways in which Trump might be culpable for obstruction of justice in his efforts to impede the investigation. They included Trump’s pressuring of his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, to protect him; his firing of the FBI director; his effort to get his White House counsel to fire Mueller, and then to deny that to investigators; and his dangling of pardons before witnesses, presumably to secure friendly testimony.

Given a Justice Department policy against indicting a sitting president, Mueller said it was up to the department and Congress to consider further action.

For more than three weeks after Mueller delivered the report, Barr didn’t allow Americans to see it — only Barr’s summary that allowed Trump to falsely declare he was “fully exonerated.” Barr did not contradict him, although he knew Mueller had written this: “While this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”


Now Barr wants to lead the charge against Trump? Better late than never. But Barr’s legacy remains the same, and it’s not the one he wants.