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AG Barr's message on Obama isn't quite what Trump wanted to hear

Trump's tantrum notwithstanding, Attorney General Bill Barr is unlikely to prosecute Obama and Biden. But the AG still said things he shouldn't have.
Image: Donald Trump, William Barr
President Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr arrive to present the Medal of Valor and Heroic Commendations to officers and civilians who responded to mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Texas, in the East Room of the White House ion Sept. 9, 2019.Nicholas Kamm / AFP - Getty Images file

Donald Trump doesn't know why Barack Obama and Joe Biden should be prosecuted, or what they'd be prosecuted for, but the incumbent president doesn't seem to care about such details. The Republican simply wants his predecessor and possible successor brought up on charges related to ... something.

Attorney General Bill Barr apparently doesn't intend to go along. The GOP lawyer is still in the process of investigating the investigation into the Russia scandal, but he suggested at a press conference yesterday that the former Democratic officeholders are unlikely targets.

"As to President Obama and Vice President Biden, whatever their level of involvement, based on the information I have today, I don't expect Mr. Durham's work will lead to a criminal investigation of either man," Barr said. "Our concern over potential criminality is focused on others."

The attorney general added that he's concerned about "increasing attempts to use the criminal justice system as a political weapon," adding, "The legal tactic has been to gin up allegations of criminality by one's political opponents based on the flimsiest of legal theories. This is not good for political life, and it's not good for the criminal justice system. And as long as I'm attorney general, the criminal justice system will not be used for partisan political ends."

On the surface, this would appear to put Barr at odds with the White House. Indeed, Trump reiterated soon after that he was "surprised" by the attorney general's comments, and in apparent reference to prosecutors going after Obama and Biden, the president added, "I think if it was me, they would do it."

But before anyone starts marveling at some kind of rift between Barr and Trump, it's important not to lose sight of the broader context.

For example, when the attorney general condemns using the criminal justice system "for partisan political ends," the irony is hard to miss: Barr has politicized federal law enforcement to a degree without modern precedent. In fact, his abuses have been so brazen, more than 2,000 former Justice Department and FBI officials -- from Democratic and Republican administrations -- have called for the attorney general to resign.

Barr is against "weaponizing" the justice system, except when he's the one wielding the cudgel.

What's more, while he won't prosecute Obama for Trump, Barr will continue to carry Trump's water. The attorney general argued yesterday, for example, "What happened to the president in the 2016 election and throughout the first two years of his administration was abhorrent. It was a grave injustice, and it was unprecedented in American history."

That's a ridiculous assessment, belied by multiple independent investigations, including former Special Counsel Robert Mueller's probe, but Barr finds it necessary to read from the White House's script.

Even Barr's most quoted comments from yesterday included needlessly provocative rhetoric. While dismissing the prospect of investigating Obama and Biden directly, the attorney general expressed concern about unnamed "others" and their "potential criminality" -- as if, in Barr's mind, federal law enforcement officials involved in the Russia investigation should necessarily be seen as suspected criminals as part of an ongoing investigation whose partisan motivations are unsubtle.

For that matter, the line about Obama and Biden wasn't nearly as generous as the attorney general would probably like people to believe. As Ben Rhodes, a veteran of the Democratic White House, explained, "In any normal world, an AG opining at all on whether he'll prosecute a former president and presumptive nominee who did nothing wrong would be seen as offensive and absurd."

For some, it may have seemed yesterday as if Barr were striking some middle ground, away from Trump's over-the-top radicalism. A closer look suggests otherwise.