Washington (CNN)William Barr’s sharp public rebuke of Donald Trump’s legal meddling was an astonishingly rare show of dissent from a top Cabinet chieftain — but the attorney general’s record as the President’s protector suggests there may be more to the latest Washington mystery than first meets the eye.
Barr’s blunt warning that Trump’s constant Twitter commentary makes it impossible to do his job broke like a thunderclap Thursday afternoon. It set off a deluge of speculation about his motives and potential reprisals from a President who brooks no disloyalty.
On the face of it, Barr’s comments in an ABC News interview look like a daring assertion of independence amid the storm over Trump’s intervention in the sentencing process for his political trickster Roger Stone.
If that was the case, Barr took a significant risk in his interview: Top officials who rebuke the President — such as ex-Attorney General Jeff Sessions — face a painful glide path to the sack. Most Cabinet officials — such as former chief of staff John Kelly, who is currently on an anti-Trump tear — wait until they are back in private life to speak up. And if Barr says he can’t do his job while Trump tweets, there will be questions about how long can he stay in office, since the President is not going to suddenly quit his favorite method of stirring up his supporters.
Barr’s true motives may take days to become clear. His inscrutable style and record of watching Trump’s back also have many observers suggesting ulterior political motives, a desire to slake some of the pressure bearing down on his department or an effort to at least restore the impression of the Justice Department’s independence without severing ties with Trump.
Perhaps Barr was acting to protect his own reputation, amid furious criticism of his conduct as the President’s shield. Or was he trying to head off a mutiny in his department? CNN reported on Wednesday that more prosecutors were considering walking out on the Justice Department amid fears for its independence after four lawyers had already quit the Stone case.
In the days ahead it may emerge that Barr gave the White House a heads-up about his move. A coordinated damage-control mission would not be impossible, since more than anyone in the administration, Barr may have leeway to buy some political capital, after basking in Trump’s praise for a string of decisions that appeared to protect the President.
But even if Barr remains in good favor, it’s unclear how the President will react. Often Trump stews after the fact about media coverage of his dramas for days. The tenure of Cabinet officials can be short and brutal. If Trump does eventually lash out at Barr, it wouldn’t be the first time a favorite has blotted his copybook and undermined an apparently impregnable position after falling out with an often-impossible boss who resists any constraints on his conduct and often seems to sabotage his own political interests.
While there is a growing parade of Trump aides publicly criticizing the President’s temperament and behavior once they leave office, few have been so public as Barr was Thursday in faulting the President’s tweeted rhetoric.
That must at least raise the possibility that this may have been the moment — amid a backlash against Trump’s post-impeachment power grabs — that Barr’s concern for his own reputation began to outweigh his deference to a President tearing at basic judicial norms.
And was it also the day that the first cracks emerged in the relationship between Trump and the attorney general and protector, the Bobby Kennedy or Eric Holder he’s always longed for?
Trump has a highly developed sense that subordinates — even those who owe allegiance first to the Constitution and an independent duty to impartial justice — owe him deep personal loyalty. The failure to carve out such a relationship of patronage was an early reason he began to sour on fired FBI Director James Comey.
Barr said in the interview Thursday that he would not be “bullied or influenced by anybody … whether it’s Congress, a newspaper editorial board, or the President.”
“I’m going to do what I think is right. And you know … I cannot do my job here at the department with a constant background commentary that undercuts me,” he said.
A cynic might argue that Barr’s remarks could be read as a dressing down of media and legal commentators who have savaged him as a tame enabler of an unbridled President