The New Cheney

Column: Washington finds a bugaboo in Attorney General William Barr

William Barr
William Barr / Getty Images

I can't think of a better illustration of our partisan divide than the reactions to Attorney General William Barr's testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Democrats are furious at Barr's defense of his rollout of the Mueller report and his assertions of executive power. Some Democrats want Barr to resign, others want him to be impeached, and Nancy Pelosi says he's guilty of lying to Congress. Republicans have found a hero.

Barr is the new Dick Cheney: a stocky, bespectacled, confrontational, blunt, intelligent, unapologetically conservative, experienced, and high-powered official who believes in and fights for the office of the president. Just as Democrats loathed Cheney as a bugaboo manipulating President George W. Bush to further the interests of Halliburton, they attack Barr as a dishonest factotum of President Trump's. The qualities that drove Democrats batty over Cheney—his inscrutability, his cleverness, his asperity, and above all his success—make them incensed about Barr. These happen to be qualities Republicans find appealing.

What's behind conservative support for Cheney and Barr is their lack of embarrassment. Most Washingtonians, no matter their party, find it important to be held in esteem by the city's tastemakers, who are overwhelmingly liberal. Not these two. The classic Cheney moment was his 2004 exchange with Pat Leahy on the Senate floor. Cheney complained that Leahy had called him a war profiteer. Leahy responded that Cheney had said he was a bad Catholic. So Cheney ended the conversation by telling Leahy to perform a physically impossible four-letter act. "You'd be surprised at how many people liked that," Cheney recollected in a 2010 interview. "It's sort of the best thing I ever did." He's selling himself short.

Republican fans of Barr circulated clips of his Senate appearance Wednesday even as media coverage of his testimony was uniformly negative. No Democrats are held in less esteem by conservatives than the ones on the Judiciary Committee. They will never live down their treatment of Brett Kavanaugh. Trump supporters nodded in agreement when Barr said the controversy over his March 24 description of the Mueller report is "mind-bendingly bizarre." They chuckled when he said Mueller's March 27 letter to him was "a bit snitty and I think it was probably written by one of his staff members." They guffawed when Barr described the verb "spying" as "a good English word." They cheered when Richard Blumenthal asked for notes Barr had taken of his phone conversation with Mueller and Barr told him no. "Why should you have them?"

Where his predecessor was genial and deferential to Congress and the press, Barr is disdainful and combative. At his April 18 press conference before the publication of the Mueller report, a CBS reporter asked Barr if his use of the word "unprecedented" to describe the circumstances of the Russia investigation was "quite generous to the president and his feelings and emotions." Barr replied, "Is there another precedent for it?" "No," the reporter acknowledged sheepishly. Another reporter wondered, "Is it an impropriety for you to come out and sort of spin the report before people are able to read it?" Barr said, "No," and left the room. Lib owned.

In 2001, Cheney fought with Henry Waxman over records related to his energy task force. Almost two decades later, Barr and Jerry Nadler face each other in a standoff over whether a sitting attorney general ought to be questioned by staff counsel. Not even CNN "could locate an instance where a Cabinet official was interviewed by staff members during a public hearing before the House Judiciary Committee." But that hasn't stopped Nadler from claiming there's "ample precedent" for his request. Committee Democrat Steve Cohen accuses Barr of being afraid of staff attorneys, but anyone who's watched Barr before Congress knows he doesn't spook easily. The fight with Nadler is over optics. Nadler wants his hearing to evoke memories of Watergate and Iran-contra. Barr has no problem denying him the opportunity.

The Democrats have a dilemma. Their base would like to impeach Trump, but the public at large is against it, and Democratic voters themselves don't put impeachment high on the priority list. The people most interested in impeachment, it seems, are cable news anchors and the same four Democrats—SwalwellSchiffLieuBlumenthal—who appear on their shows day after day. Pelosi has adopted a too-clever-by-half strategy of letting the committee chairmen hound the Trump administration while leadership resists full-bore impeachment. The danger of overreach is real.

Barr is an obstacle not just because of his support for a strong presidency. He also shows every sign of wanting to get to the bottom of malfeasance at the FBI and DOJ during the 2016 campaign. His critics decry his use of the word "spying" to describe surreptitious intelligence gathering on Trump advisors, but the day after his Senate testimony the New York Times revealed that George Papadopoulos had been contacted by a second FBI employee as part of the Bureau's counterintelligence probe. It was another vindication of Barr, who had told Congress last month the question wasn't if spying had occurred, but if it had been "adequately predicated."

"I think we did the right thing," Dick Cheney tells James Rosen in Cheney One on One. "And I don't have any problem defending it." Bill Barr gives every indication of feeling the same way. That's why he's become a Democratic target. And a GOP star.