Law & the Courts

The Anti–Bill Barr Smear Campaign 

Attorney General William Barr arrives to testify on Capitol Hill, April 9, 2019. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)

The campaign against Attorney General Bill Barr is in full swing. We are told that he’s a tawdry tool of Donald Trump, that he’s disgracing himself and sullying his reputation, that he’s the equivalent of a Roy Cohn, the sleazy lawyer who once represented Trump back in New York.

The criticism of Barr reached a crescendo this week after he used the word “spying” in congressional testimony to refer to the surveillance of Trump-campaign officials in 2016. The reaction to his testimony was absurdly over-the-top. Yes, the word “spying” has a negative connotation, but it’s functionally indistinguishable from “surveilling.” To wit: The FISA court that approves the FBI’s surveillance is sometimes referred to in the press as the “spy court.”

There is no doubt that Trump officials were surveilled or spied on. The FBI famously acquired a FISA warrant against Carter Page, who briefly served as a Trump foreign-policy adviser. It is true that the FBI began surveilling Page in October 2016 after he left the campaign, but the warrant allowed it to look back at his communications during his time with the campaign.

The FBI also gathered information on Page and campaign adviser George Papadopoulos via an informant, who contacted Trump aide Sam Clovis as well.

The question, as Barr said the other day, is whether this surveillance was properly predicated. Barr is being attacked as a partisan hack for saying he’s going to find out. Democrats fear that Trump will use — and exaggerate — whatever is found for his own political purposes, but this isn’t a good reason to oppose Barr’s determining whether the FBI conducted itself with good judgment and in good faith during this episode. The public certainly has an interest in knowing the facts, which is why as many documents related to the beginning of the probe and its conduct should be released as possible.

Barr is also taking a beating for redacting the forthcoming Mueller report. But it is his responsibility to take out grand-jury material — a D.C. court of appeals decision just affirmed that this material can’t be released to Congress under current statute — classified information, and disparaging references to people incidentally related to the probe. This is simply good practice, and Barr has said he’s combing through the report with Robert Mueller. You know, just like Roy Cohn would.

The final count against Barr is that he wrote a memo prior to his appointment as attorney general outlining his view that the legally aggressive theory of obstruction of justice that Mueller seemed to be operating on was flawed. We are told this was Barr shamelessly kowtowing to Trump. But there’s no reason to believe that this wasn’t Barr’s considered, sincere view of the law, and it seems to be the correct one, by the way.

Barr didn’t take the job of attorney general for the sake of résumé padding — he already had the job on his résumé. He thought his experience, knowledge, and credibility gave him a unique ability to lead the Justice Department at an incredibly fraught time. Nothing he has done so far has cast any doubt on that assessment. We trust he will shrug off the absurd rage directed at him, and carry on.

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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