Attorney General William Barr made headlines Monday when he threw some cold water on President Donald Trump's latest invention: the "political crime" the president calls "Obamagate." Trump has suggested that both President Barack Obama and former Vice President Joe Biden committed crimes as part of an attempt to sabotage the incoming Trump administration.
Barr, who generally has been a cheerleader for Trump on these issues - in 2019 he told a Senate committee that spying on the Trump campaign "did occur" - offered a meticulously measured dissent.
Referring to a criminal investigation of the origins of the Russia investigation being conducted by Connecticut U.S. Attorney John Durham, Barr said: "I don't expect Mr. Durham's work will lead to a criminal investigation of either man. Our concern over potential criminality is focused on others."
In refusing to follow Trump down this particular rabbit hole, Barr can present himself as an apolitical attorney general. But the effect of such distancing might be to strengthen the credibility of Barr's other statements and actions that reinforce Trump's narrative. They include the Durham investigation itself, which arguably duplicates an investigation by the Justice Department's inspector general that failed to establish a political motive for the Russia investigation.
Barr had problems with that conclusion. After Inspector General Michael Horowitz issued his report last year, the attorney general said that the probe showed that "the FBI launched an intrusive investigation of a U.S. presidential campaign on the thinnest of suspicions that, in my view, were insufficient to justify the steps taken." (In a TV interview, Barr added that the lack of a satisfactory explanation for the FBI's errors in the investigation "leaves open the possibility to infer bad faith.")
There's a pattern here.
By distancing himself from Trump's more bizarre attacks on the Justice Department, Obama and Biden, Barr puts himself forward as a reasonable alternative.
The most dramatic example came in February when Barr publicly criticized Trump for some of his tweets about the Justice Department, including one denouncing the original sentencing recommendation for Trump associate Roger Stone. An administration official told the Associated Press a short time later that Barr had told associates he might quit because Trump refused to heed his warning to stop tweeting about cases.
But Barr's still here. More to the point, the sentencing recommendation for Stone was softened, prompting Trump to tweet: "Congratulations to Attorney General Bill Barr for taking charge of a case that was totally out of control and perhaps should not have even been brought."
The Stone episode was followed earlier this month by the Justice Department's decision to ask for an end to the prosecution of former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn, who had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. (A federal judge is weighing whether to approve the dismissal.) Barr had instigated that shift in February by assigning an outside prosecutor - Jeffrey Jensen, whom Trump appointed as U.S. attorney in St. Louis - to review Flynn's case.
Sure, Barr might break with the president when he has to. But his words and actions continue to provide support for Trump's overarching narrative that he and his associates were treated unfairly by the previous administration and the "deep state." One might think of it as a "good cop/ bad cop" routine - except that the good cop and the bad cop are the same guy.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Michael McGough is the Los Angeles Times' senior editorial writer, based in Washington, D.C.
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