Why you should care
Because history hands out few second chances, but Barr might be about to get one.
Based on OZY’s hit podcast The Thread, which delves into surprising connections in history, The Mueller Thread weaves together the strands linking the sprawling investigations around President Donald Trump. This is the first in a new regular series.
It was the president’s 67th birthday. And so the normally tightly wound George H.W. Bush was sitting at his desk in the Oval Office in July 1991 with his suit jacket off and his tie loosened. The moment of relaxation didn’t last long. White House lawyers had some unfortunate birthday news: The Iran-Contra investigation, run by independent counsel Lawrence Walsh, was circling in on the president. According to journalist Bob Woodward, the late Bush took the news by plucking a plastic mallet from the hand of a stuffed toy he had received as a gift. “Take that, Walsh!” Bush proclaimed as he pounded the mallet on his desk like a peeved toddler. “I’d like to get rid of this guy.”
The president, however, didn’t have to rely on a toy for that. He had a real mallet: U.S. Attorney General William Barr. The same Bill Barr currently before the Senate to audition for the same job he once held nearly three decades ago. Barr has said he is committed to allowing special counsel Robert Mueller to finish his probe, but actions speak louder than words, especially the conciliatory ones uttered in confirmation hearings. And so perhaps the best way to know what Barr might do about the special counsel is to look at what he’s done before or, more precisely, what he didn’t do.
Barr … told Bush, “I’ve had an itchy finger.”
Just days before the 1992 election, polls had Bush dead even with his Democratic opponent, Bill Clinton. And then the president — and his attorney general — got a near-Halloween surprise from an old nemesis.
For five years, independent counsel Lawrence Walsh had been investigating the Iran-Contra scandal, and for five years Bush had claimed he was “out of the loop” as vice president. Then, on October 30, Walsh re-indicted former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, submitting excerpts from Weinberger’s handwritten notes, including one that recounted a January 1986 meeting in which President Ronald Reagan approved a large sale of arms to Iran — a decision that the “VP favored” as well. This was the first evidence that Bush had known about the arms-for-hostages exchange, and the news sent his poll numbers spiraling just days before the election. “I think the press has been the worst it’s ever been, ever!” Bush fumed of the coverage in a Trumpian rant to CNN the next day, accusing Walsh of — yes — a “big witch hunt.” Bush’s fury did not abate after he lost the election that Tuesday, and there was a primary target of his displeasure: Bill Barr.
With his cropped, well-coiffed hair and round eyeglass frames, Barr looked every bit the 1980s Republican caricature from an SNL skit. Barr had worked under Bush at the CIA in the 1970s and had served in both the Office of Legal Counsel and as deputy attorney general before being unanimously confirmed by the Senate as Bush’s attorney general in 1991. Barr came with a strong view of executive power and a distaste for the independent counsel that gelled well with the president’s own. Barr thought the independent counsel statute established after Watergate was dangerous: It gave a single prosecutor a narrow focus with incredible power and little political accountability. It created, as Barr argued in a 2001 interview, “a political environment where you’re almost driven to find something or else you’ve wasted — to justify your existence.” Barr called Walsh a “headhunter” who had “completely lost perspective.”
It was a view that Bush reiterated when he summoned Barr to the Oval Office the day after losing to Clinton, infuriated that Walsh’s “abuse of power” had “cost me the election,” and wondering what could be — and should have been — done about him. According to Woodward, Barr had been contemplating that question for the past 18 months, and told Bush, “I’ve had an itchy finger.”
So why didn’t Barr’s “itchy finger” pull the trigger on Walsh? Why wasn’t he a better mallet? For one thing, Barr knew the law: He knew Walsh was an “independent counsel,” one who was appointed by a judicial panel and not directly under Department of Justice supervision and who could only be removed for “misconduct.” So if Barr fired Walsh, he would have to explain why to that panel and to Congress — which would just replace him with a new investigator — as well as to a skeptical public.
What does this mean for how Barr might treat the Mueller investigation? Mueller is a “special,” not independent, counsel, one appointed and supervised by the DOJ. But even if Barr may have greater legal leeway for removing Mueller or ending his investigation, there may be little practical benefit in doing so given how close Mueller reportedly is to the finish line, and the ensuing firestorm that would ensue. But Barr can still be an effective mallet against one perceived as an overzealous prosecutor by controlling what portions of a Mueller report get released to Congress and the public.
There are further options. With Barr’s help, the lame duck Bush belatedly kneecapped the Iran-Contra investigation a different way: Christmas Eve pardons for Weinberger and five others. As Walsh himself put it best, if Richard Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre removed the prosecutor from the cases, Bush’s Christmas Eve pardons removed the cases from the prosecutor. But who really remembers Lawrence Walsh today, right?
Bill Barr does. And he also undoubtedly remembers what it’s like to be called into the Oval Office and confronted with the “I told you so’s” of a fallen president. The Saturday Night Massacre teaches us well the cost to a presidency of doing too much to oppose an investigation, but perhaps no one better than Barr understands the cost to a presidency of not doing enough.