I spoke to Attorney General William Barr's old classmates. They told me he's using Trump to get the power he always wanted

'There are people out there who are fascist. William Barr, in my view, is one'

Andrew Feinberg
Washington DC
Wednesday 19 February 2020 22:47 GMT
Attorney General William Barr says 'spying did occur' on Trump campaign

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


If you've paid much attention to the news over the last week, you might think it's a rough time to be William Barr.

The 85th United States Attorney General has spent the past week besieged by an onslaught of bad news, including a public rebuke by more than 2000 of his former colleagues, the resignation of four prosecutors handling the case of Roger Stone, and reports of declining morale among his department's rank and file — all at the hands of his boss, President Donald Trump.

The Stone case, Barr said, was "a righteous prosecution”; he added that he was "happy" a jury convicted the self-described GOP "dirty trickster" on his watch. But on ABC News, he lamented the way Trump's tweeting makes it "impossible for [him] to do [his] job and to assure the courts and the prosecutors in the department that [they're] doing [their] work with integrity.”

Perhaps recognizing his missteps, Trump came as close to expressing contrition as I have seen in three years of covering my beat on Tuesday, when he spoke to a group of reporters gathered under the wing of Air Force One before his departure for a four-day trip to the west coast.

While he stressed that he still sees his omnipresent social media stream-of-consciousness as a net positive because it gives him a way to counter-program what he believes to be unfair press coverage, he begrudgingly agreed with Barr's comments about his tweets.

"Yeah, I do make his job harder. I do agree with that," he said when asked about the remarks by Barr, who he called "a man with incredible integrity."

But Trump cast aside that hint of magnanimity just seconds later when he once again declared that he's "allowed to be totally involved" in the day-to-day functions of the Justice Department.

"I’m actually, I guess, the chief law enforcement officer of the country, but I’ve chosen not to be involved," he said.

By Tuesday evening, it was clear that a full-fledged media tit-for-tat had developed between the nation's (actual) chief law enforcement officer and his boss, the would-be king of the Department of Justice. The former appeared to respond to the latter's verbal usurpation of his job through an article in the Washington Post featuring a "person familiar with Barr’s thinking" who said that he "has his limits" and had considered resigning in recent days.

But despite the public break with Trump and the recent reports of extant resignation plans, sources who've known Barr over the years aren't convinced that he's going anywhere anytime soon.

Barr, they say, has exactly what he wants in Trump, namely a president whose lack of firm convictions (except for a sense that his allies should never face criminal convictions) has allowed his third Attorney General to have free rein.

Stuart Gerson, who served Assistant Attorney General for the DOJ's Civil Division under Barr, and who ended up remaining as Bill Clinton's Acting Attorney General during the first few months of his administration, said Barr is "a good deal more sophisticated and intelligent" than Trump, and suggested that while Trump has been able to make Barr's extreme beliefs seem attractive to his political base, it is Barr who is using Trump's relative naivety "to advance an agenda that he's long held”.

Others whose experiences with Barr date back to long before his first stint as Attorney General in the 1990s see something far more sinister.

'Impossible for me to do my job': Barr calls out Trump in scathing interview over Stone scandal

Jonathan Smit, one of Barr's high school classmates at New York's Horace Mann school, suggested that Barr's decision to offer himself to Trump was the result of the once-and-future Attorney General recognizing a kindred spirit in the 45th President.

Smit said that even as a young man, Barr had a reputation as a "hardline conservative" whose beliefs were infused with a heavy dose of religiosity, and added that he does not seem to have changed or moderated his beliefs in the intervening decades.

"He seems pretty much the guy was in high school. It's like his whole life has been a straight line…informed by a radically right-wing...conservative strain of Catholicism," he said. "I think he's someone who believes in fundamental Old Testament values, basically, and he sees his mission as pointing the country back in that direction."

Trump's presidency, Smit posited, gave the semi-retired Barr "an opportunity to put himself in a position to assert his own political agenda" and "shape the legal establishment to suit his own political ends."

"I don't even know if Trump has an ideology, but I think Barr does," he continued. "I don't think he's uncomfortable with the idea of a certain kind of authoritarianism being wielded towards those ends, and he sees Trump as someone who isn't going to be circumspect about it."

Another of Barr's former Horace Mann classmates, criminal defense attorney Jimmy Lohman, was alarmed enough by Barr's rise under the first Bush administration that he penned an op-ed in a local Florida newspaper, in which he revealed that Barr and his brothers had picketed a school function because it was serving as a fundraiser for the local chapter of the NAACP.

Lohman said Barr presented as a standard-issue conservative in the mold of National Review founder William F Buckley in his younger days, but, like Smits, suggested that the 77th Attorney General was inspired to offer himself up to be the 85th Attorney General because President Trump embraced a vision of himself as all-powerful.

"The only thing that really makes sense to me is that he clearly wanted to get in on all the power and he saw Trump as someone he could manipulate and be a kind of Robespierre to a [foolish] king… in effect the most powerful person in the country by manipulating this man," he said.

"I think that he just wanted to get in on it and have the power to reshape the world in his image," he continued. "And that image is some weird ass version of Catholicism, it's almost unlimited executive power, it's fascism."

"There are people out there who are fascist. William Barr, in my view, is one, and I evidently picked up on that a long, long time ago.”

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