The Media Today

Angry Barr and whether the press is getting played

February 14, 2020

Last week, as Susan Collins, the Republican senator from Maine, prepared to acquit President Trump in his impeachment trial, she told CBS News that he had learned “a pretty big lesson.” Surely he would start behaving better. Fast forward ten days, and it’s clear that impeachment did teach Trump a lesson: that he can break the rules with impunity.

After firing officials who testified against him in the impeachment hearings, Trump intervened in the sentencing of Roger Stone, his consigliere. Stone faces jail time for crimes exposed during Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation—including obstruction, making false statements, and telling a potential witness against him to “prepare to die.” On Tuesday, Trump tweeted that Stone’s proposed sentence—seven to nine years—was “horrible and very unfair”; afterward, we learned that the Justice Department overruled its prosecutors by requesting a more lenient punishment. The department insisted that it reached its decision before Trump tweeted. Still, it was hard to avoid the conclusion that justice had been politicized and undermined. Four career prosecutors quit Stone’s case. One resigned from the Justice Department altogether.

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William Barr, who runs the Justice Department, found himself in the eye of the storm. Yesterday, he tried to squirm out of it. In an interview with Pierre Thomas, of ABC News, Barr said that the Stone decision was made in good faith and accused Trump of unhelpfully confusing matters. “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,” Barr said. “I’m not going to be bullied or influenced by anybody,” he added. “Whether it’s Congress, newspaper editorial boards, or the president—I’m going to do what I think is right. I cannot do my job here at the department with a constant background commentary that undercuts me.” Last night, his words spun through the news cycle.

As the New York Times noted, Barr’s language echoed the independent tone he’d struck in his confirmation hearing, and he mentioned the hearing to Thomas on at least five occasions. (The Senate confirmed Barr as attorney general a year ago to the day.) During that hearing, Barr insisted that he would never shill for Trump. The press, noting his old establishment ties and perhaps wanting to believe him, echoed that message, credulously, across coverage. Barr, we were told, was a stalwart, a straight-shooter, a “principled institutionalist.” On CNN, Chris Cuomo said that, on balance, the hearing had been “bad for Trump” because Barr had communicated “a rigid sense of independence.” Since then, however, Barr’s reputation has gone rapidly downhill. That’s been due, in no small part, to his handling of the Mueller report. Barr briefed its topline findings weeks before he made it publicly available; when the report circulated, it became clear that Barr’s summary had been misleading. In the press, Barr, the independent lawman, was gone. Now he was Barr, the “toadying” suck-up who may as well be Trump’s personal lawyer.

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.”

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Given Barr’s record as attorney general, skepticism is healthy. But the framing of Barr as Trump’s lapdog risks obscuring a much more important fact. Barr is probably being truthful when he says he’s doing what he thinks is right—because, on available evidence, the subservience of the Justice Department to the will and power of the president is what he thinks is right. Barr believes in the centralization of presidential power—just to the point, critics say, where the president is effectively above the law. Barr reached that view independently of Trump.

A year ago, when the Senate voted to confirm Barr, his views were hardly a secret; we just chose not to emphasize them. Since then, a succession of magazine articles—in the New Yorker, New York magazine, Vanity Fair, and elsewhere—have elucidated his troubling judicial philosophy. (In a provocative essay for the New York Review of Books, Tamsin Shaw compared Barr to Carl Schmitt, the “Crown Jurist” of Nazi Germany.) But day-to-day reporting still tends to overlook it, or to mention it only in passing. That’s regrettable, since Barr’s conception of the presidency will likely have consequences that outlast Trump. “If those views take hold, we will have lost what was won in the Revolution—we will have a chief executive who is more powerful than the king,” Laurence Tribe, a law professor at Harvard, told the New Yorker. “That will be a disaster for the survival of the Republic.”

Below, more on the Trump administration and justice:

  • Investigating the investigators: Last year, Barr authorized an investigation into the origins of the Mueller probe. Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department’s inspector general, already concluded a similar review, and found that Mueller’s efforts were legitimate; it’s hard to see how a fair-minded assessment would disagree. Barr, however, has publicly criticized Horowitz’s work. Yesterday, the Times reported that Barr’s investigators “appear to be hunting for a basis to accuse Obama-era intelligence officials of hiding evidence or manipulating analysis” of Russian election meddling.
  • Where there’s a shill, there’s a way: On Wednesday, Tucker Carlson argued, on his Fox News show, that Trump should pardon Stone. In the Post, Erik Wemple accused Carlson of “shilling” for Stone, with whom he has personal ties. Watching the segment, Wemple wrote, it was “difficult to avoid the sense that he’s just trying to get a friend out of a bind.”
  • In other abuse-of-power news: Yesterday, a federal judge ordered a halt to a cloud-computing contract tendered by the Pentagon in order to allow Amazon to challenge it in court. The government had awarded the contract to Microsoft; Amazon alleges that Trump’s hatred of its owner, Jeff Bezos, who also owns the Post, factored into that decision.
  • Restoring Hope: Hope Hicks is returning to the White House, two years after leaving and taking an executive role at Fox. Hicks, who previously served as Trump’s communications director, will not be involved on the media side; instead, she’ll work as an aide to Jared Kushner.

Other notable stories:

  • The NYPD is cracking down on leaks to the media, the New York Post reports. Last year, the department subpoenaed the Twitter account of Tina Moore, a reporter at the Post who received and published photos of a crime scene, and invoked the Patriot Act as justification. On Wednesday, the subpoena was withdrawn. Also this week, the NYPD suspended two officers for sharing footage of a shootout in a police station in the Bronx. And Amr Alfiky, a photojournalist, was arrested while filming the arrest of a man in Chinatown.
  • For the Times, Neil MacFarquhar reports that Radio Sputnik, a Russian propaganda channel, is creeping across the airwaves in Kansas City, Missouri—and sharing a frequency with a jazz station. “Sputnik covers the political spectrum from right to left, but the constant backbeat is that America is damaged goods,” he writes. Its hosts “find much to dislike in America… and they play on internal divisions as well.”
  • On Wednesday, Charlie Munger, a veteran business partner of Warren Buffett, told a meeting of Daily Journal Corp, a newspaper company he chairs, that America’s daily newspapers are “all dying.” Two weeks ago, Buffett—who has expressed similar sentiments—sold his newspaper business to Lee Enterprises. Reuters has more.
  • Last year, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists partnered with outlets, including the Times, to dig into documents detailing China’s suppression of Muslims. A week before the collaboration was due to be published, the Times ran its own, separate investigation on the same topic. Top editors at the Times called that an “oversight,” and apologized to ICIJ and other partners. The Washington Post’s Wemple has more.
  • On CJR’s podcast, The Kicker, Kyle Pope, our editor and publisher, spoke with Han Zhang, of the New Yorker, on the information ecosystem surrounding the coronavirus outbreak in China. The World Health Organization has declared the virus an “infodemic.” For the MIT Technology Review, Karen Hao and Tanya Basu explain what that means.
  • A new report commissioned by the British and Canadian governments and authored by Amal Clooney recommends that states use targeted sanctions to punish people who threaten journalists and press freedom. Few states have targeted-sanctions laws and those that exist, Clooney writes, “have rarely been used to protect journalists.”
  • For CJR, Maria Bustillos spoke with Fahad Shah, editor of the Kashmir Walla, about the challenges Kashmir’s press has faced since the Indian government revoked the region’s autonomous status and blocked its internet last year. “It really takes a toll on your mental health,” Shah says. “Kashmir today is such that you can’t get away from stress.”
  • And Taylor Lorenz, of the Times, reports that Michael Bloomberg “has contracted some of the biggest meme-makers on the internet” to produce sponsored Instagram posts for his presidential campaign. Bloomberg has tasked the CEO of Jerry Media—a “powerful force in the influencer economy”—with rebranding him as “a self-aware ironic character.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.