AG Bill Barr's latest claims won't help his damaged credibility

As the attorney general tries to distance himself from the Lafayette Square scandal, he's making a variety of claims that appear to be false.
Image: Attorney General William Barr holds a press conference rat the Department of Justice in Washington
Attorney General William Barr holds a press conference rat the Department of Justice in Washington on Jan. 13, 2020.Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP - Getty Images file
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By Steve Benen

A variety of Trump administration officials spent last week trying to distance themselves from the Lafayette Square scandal, and Attorney General Bill Barr seemed to join them with comments to the Associated Press.

"I'm not involved in giving tactical commands like that," he said. "I was frustrated and I was also worried that as the crowd grew, it was going to be harder and harder to do. So my attitude was get it done, but I didn't say, 'Go do it.'"

Sure. And when Henry II said, "Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?" he perhaps didn't literally tell anyone to kill Thomas Becket, but some knights made the trip to Canterbury anyway.

Barr's comments seemed to contradict the White House's own line about Barr's role in clearing Lafayette Square of peaceful protestors a week ago today -- White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany was quite explicit about the attorney general's efforts -- but on Team Trump, sometimes the right hand doesn't know what the even-further-to-the-right hand is doing.

While we wait for the White House to sort out its story, Barr made a variety of related claims over the last couple of days, each of which struggled under scrutiny.

The Republican lawyer told CBS News' Margaret Brennan, for example, "The president never asked or suggested that we needed to deploy" active-duty troops onto American streets. There's been a whole lot of independent reporting pointing in the opposite direction.

Barr also told Brennan the clearing of the park across the street from the White House was not "connected" to Trump's photo-op, despite the fact that the former occurred immediately before the latter. A Washington Post analysis concluded that the attorney general's claims on this point "collapse under scrutiny."

And finally, Barr went on to tell the CBS News anchor, in reference to the offensive against peaceful protestors, "There was no tear gas used." Pressed further, the attorney general added, "There were not chemical irritants. Pepper spray is not a chemical irritant. It's not chemical."

I'm not altogether sure what that last part meant -- all matter is "chemical" -- but as a separate Washington Post report noted last week, "[T]he Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identifies the sort of devices that the Park Police admitted using as a form of tear gas. It was a specific, organic iteration of irritant, but it was a qualifying irritant nonetheless."

William Barr had a credibility problem long before last week, but it's striking how eager he seems to make the problem worse.