Over the weekend, former Trump Attorney General Bill Barr unleashed a quote he knew would be included in virtually all of Monday’s coverage of the 37 federal charges against Donald Trump. Barr is a canny politician and he offered up some great material for the news cycles heading into Trump’s arraignment, saying Trump was likely “toast.” But we can’t ignore Barr’s own motives here.
In a longer quote, two sentences stand out, destined to be repeated again and again: “I was shocked by the degree of sensitivity of these documents and how many there were, frankly,” Barr said, and “if even half of it is true, then he’s toast. It’s a very detailed indictment, and it’s very, very damning. This idea of presenting Trump as a victim here—a victim of a witch hunt—is ridiculous.”
Barr went on to say that Trump had been a victim of “phony claims” in the past, with Barr defending him some of those times, but this time “he was totally wrong.” As Barr surely knew they would, his comments spurred Trump to respond with a barrage of insults. Barr was “a lazy Attorney General,” Trump wrote on Truth Social. He was “weak & totally ineffective” and a “Gutless Pig.” Steve Bannon piled on, saying on his podcast, as Rudy Giuliani cackled with laughter, “Bill Barr, you can sit up there and say it's a great case—we're gonna shove this up your ass, ok? We're gonna shove it up your ass. You are frickin' guilty of treason. Big ol'—you're guilty of treason. And Wray is guilty of treason.”
While it is useful to have a former top Trump official saying publicly that the charges against Trump are serious and credible and that he is not the victim of a witch hunt—go right ahead, repeat those lines to everyone you know!—Barr shouldn’t get too much credit here. He knows just what he’s doing, from the widespread media coverage of his comments to the attacks from Trump and his loyalists.
Even at 73, Barr is looking ahead to his own next act, concerned above all with Bill Barr’s public image and future prospects. Media coverage of him as a principled Republican critic of Trump plays into his plan, as do Trump’s attacks. As Trump’s attorney general, Barr lent Trump the establishment Republican gravitas he had built up over decades going through the revolving door between government and big money law. Now he’s looking to wash some of the Trump stench off himself. He wants the media to portray him as someone who worked from the inside to blunt the worst of Trump and then became a truth teller from the outside, a useful image as he gets ready to pitch himself as an adviser to the next Republican to rise.
Barr has spent decades promoting the idea of the "unitary executive." Writing at Just Law in 2020, Caroline Fredrickson explained, “This alarming—and highly contested—theory posits that the president has the power to make all executive branch decisions, including hiring, firing, and—perhaps most chillingly—whether or not to initiate or end a criminal prosecution.” This is the concept Barr cares about and seeks to advance by advancing his own career. For both those purposes, he’s done with Trump. But he’d be happy to latch onto, say, a Ron DeSantis presidency both to continue making his vision of the unitary executive a reality—and just think what DeSantis might do with that—and so that his time with Trump would not be seen as the capper on his career. This is how high-level Republican functionaries work. They constantly reinvent themselves for new administrations, but always with the goal of ratcheting the party further to the right and deeper into authoritarianism. And as long as they look and sound serious in a media-friendly way, they tend to get away with it.
So sing it from the rooftops: Donald Trump’s own former attorney general says he was “shocked by the degree of sensitivity of these documents and how many there were.” While prosecutors have to prove their case, Donald Trump’s own former attorney general (repeat that, it’s important) says “if even half of it is true, then he’s toast. It’s a very detailed indictment, and it’s very, very damning.” And “This idea of presenting Trump as a victim here—a victim of a witch hunt—is ridiculous.” But don’t give Barr credit for principles or courage. He’s just thinking about his own reputation and his own longstanding political project.
We talk about the field of Republicans willing to go up against the MAGA monster that is Trump. It’s a veritable who cares of the Republican Party, but it is also indicative of the rot inside of the conservative world.