AG Bill Barr finds himself in a box of his own making

Barr said Trump was making it "impossible" for him to do his job, so he reminded Barr that his job is whatever Trump wants it to be.
Image: President Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr leave the Rose Garden on July 11, 2019.
President Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr leave the Rose Garden on July 11, 2019.Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

It's been about 10 days since Attorney General Bill Barr sat down with ABC News and said Donald Trump's public remarks about Justice Department matters make his job vastly more difficult.

"Public statements and tweets made about the department, about 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 and to assure the courts and the department that we're doing our work with integrity," the attorney general said. In the same interview, the Republican lawyer added, "I think it's time to stop the tweeting about Department of Justice criminal cases."

The president responded by ignoring Barr's comments and, by some measures, escalating his public remarks about the Justice Department, the criminal justice system, ongoing cases, a federal judge, and even a juror who participated in one of his felonious friends' cases.

Late last week, as Vox noted, Trump just kept going.

He echoed that same theme on Thursday in a tweet in which he alluded to his unhappiness that Hillary Clinton and former FBI official Andrew McCabe didn't get the Stone treatment. (Never mind that both were already investigated and found to have done nothing wrong.) Later Thursday, Trump posted a tweet describing the decision DOJ made to not prosecute McCabe as "utterly inexplicable." After that, he held an event in Las Vegas in which he attacked the foreperson of Stone's jury at length because she had social media posts that criticized him.

On Friday, Trump weighed in once more on the Roger Stone case with another tweet. Yesterday, during a brief Q&A with reporters on the White House South Lawn, the president added, "Well, I've seen a very sad thing going on with respect to Roger Stone. You have a juror that's obviously tainted.... I think it's a disgrace. And I could say plenty more about that whole situation, but I'll hold it."

He wasn't kidding, though I'll confess that I laughed a bit when he said he'll "hold" additional criticism -- as if a week and a half of public whining about criminal proceedings involving his friend constituted restraint.

All of which brings us back to our attorney general. The Washington Post reported last week that Barr was considering resigning, which was difficult to believe at the time, and which seems even less plausible now.

To be sure, Barr's on-air comments on ABC last week should not have been taken at face value. As we've discussed, those who saw the interview as some kind of rebuke of the president seemed to miss the point Barr was apparently trying to convey.

But regardless of the attorney general's intended message, Trump has spent nearly every day since Barr's interview effectively putting the Republican lawyer in his place. Barr said the president was making it "impossible" for him to do his job, to which Trump responded by reminding Barr that his job is whatever the president wants it to be.

The AG stuck his neck out a bit, signaling a willingness to quit as a result of Trump's antics, at which point the president raised the volume and intensity on his misbehavior.

It's entirely possible that I've misread the landscape and that Trump will find Barr's letter of resignation waiting for him on his desk when he returns from India. But I rather doubt it. By all appearances, he's found himself in a box of his own making.

Postscript: CNN had a related report on Barr over the weekend, which was unsettling in different ways: "Current and former Justice officials describe an attorney general who doesn't readily take advice and is prone to right wing conspiracies that he reads in fringe conservative sites on the Internet."