GOP leaders (carefully) express their support for AG Barr

McConnell, McCarthy, and Graham wanted to stand with the attorney general, while simultaneously making clear that they weren't siding with Barr over Trump.
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

It's a controversy that's rattled federal law enforcement in ways unseen in recent memory. As multiple reports have made clear, Attorney General Bill Barr has been accused of essentially trying to fix cases and investigations of interest to Donald Trump. It's led more than a few relevant observers -- including more than 2,000 former Justice Department lawyers -- to call for Barr's resignation.

The backlash has apparently led to a counter-backlash, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), and Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) releasing a joint statement yesterday, calling the attorney general a "man of the highest character and unquestionable integrity."

"Suggestions from outside groups that the Attorney General has fallen short of the responsibilities of his office are unfounded. The Attorney General has shown that he is committed without qualification to securing equal justice under law for all Americans.... The nation is fortunate that President Trump chose such a strong and selfless public servant to lead the Department of Justice."

The fact that congressional Republican leaders found it necessary to issue such a statement was odd -- part of Graham's job is to oversee the Justice Department, not express fawning praise for its leader -- though it reinforced impressions that the controversy surrounding Barr has gained traction.

But I was especially struck by the GOP lawmakers' statement adding a seemingly superfluous compliment for Donald Trump.

Though the politics of the larger dynamic are far more nuanced than they appear on the surface, there is a superficial disagreement between Barr and the president. The attorney general wants Trump to stop weighing in publicly on ongoing Justice Department matters, and the president doesn't care. Trump conceded yesterday that he makes it more difficult for Barr to do his job, and sources close to the attorney general suggested to reporters that Barr has weighed quitting.

To take any of these reports at face value would be a ridiculous mistake. Barr and Trump are, after all, very much on the same team. The reason that the attorney general is under fire is because he's helped use the Justice Department as an extension of the president's political agenda, and it's likely he tried to get Trump to back off in order to better abuse his office in secret.

That said, to the extent that there's a perceived gap between Trump and Barr, the congressional Republican leaders realized yesterday that they had to thread the needle: McConnell, McCarthy, and Graham wanted to stand with the attorney general, while simultaneously making clear that they weren't siding with Barr over Trump.

And so, the result was a rather clumsy joint statement, singing Barr's praises, while also hailing the president's wisdom and judgment for having chosen Barr in the first place.