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William Barr: attorney general plays Republican spear-catcher again

Lloyd Green


Robert Mueller’s work is done but the political skirmishing is far from over. The president has vowed revenge. Democrats are demanding to see the special counsel’s report.

Related: Mueller report latest: Trump claims 'total exoneration' as Democrats regroup

One thing is certain: William Barr, the attorney general, will be at the center of a political storm in the run-up to a presidential election. But don’t feel too bad for him. He’s been there before.

It was in 1992. Amid a luckless re-election drive, Attorney General Barr emerged as a reliable spear-catcher for a beleaguered President Bush.

The afterglow of the Gulf war had faded, America was in a recession and Pat Buchanan had put a dent in the president’s armor in the Republican primary. And there was an added legal wrinkle that would thrust Barr into the spotlight: when the Bush administration was accused of having illegally financed Saddam Hussein’s military buildup through the extension of agriculture credits, Democrats accused Barr of orchestrating a cover-up.

The current attorney general always possessed a respect for authority

An investigation and report issued in 1995 by Janet Reno, Bill Clinton’s attorney general, cleared the Bush administration of wrongdoing. Department of Justice investigators “did not find evidence that US agencies or officials illegally armed Iraq or that crimes were committed”.

But it was a different story back in the day. Congress and William Safire, a New York Times columnist and former Nixon speechwriter, were at loggerheads with the administration. Barr said and did exactly what needed to be said and done to protect the prerogatives of the executive branch.

In October 1989, George HW Bush had signed off on National Security Directive 26, which sought to boost Iraq as a counterbalance to Iran. In hindsight, the president and his team had emboldened Saddam. The invasion of Kuwait was a huge unintended consequence.

Also, reports emerged of an FBI raid at the Atlanta branch of the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro (BNL), an Italian bank that lent or credited Iraq with approximately $4bn, which in turn was purportedly used for illegal arms purchases.

In June 1992, Christopher Drogoul, the manager of BNL’s Atlanta branch, would plead guilty to 60 counts of a 347-count federal indictment which charged him with defrauding BNL and the government in connection with $4bn in unauthorized loans to Iraqi interests “including $1.6bn in US-guaranteed loans”.

With the Gulf war over, Henry Gonzalez, a Texas congressman and chair of the House banking committee, made Iraqgate his hobby horse, taking to reading classified documents into the Congressional Record. For the attorney general, that was a bridge too far. Faced with Gonzalez’s insolence, Barr barked: “No soup for you!”

Just kidding. Rather, he sounded like this: “Public disclosure of classified information harms the national security … in light of your recent disclosures, the executive branch will not provide any more classified information.”

Gonzalez replied in kind: “Now your letter suggests that the Bush administration plans to move from foot dragging to outright obstruction.”

Once again, past sure looks like prelude.

A few months later, House Democrats demanded Barr appoint an independent counsel to investigate the sins of the Bush administration. They were rebuffed. In a letter to the House judiciary committee, Barr tossed around such phrases as “not a crime”, “simply not criminal in any way”, “nothing illegal”, and “far from being a crime”.

Related: No collusion, plenty of corruption: Trump is not in the clear | Richard Wolffe

As to the separate question of whether administration officials deliberately altered commerce department documents in an effort to conceal military sales to Iraq and purposely misled Congress about Iraq policy, Barr contended the Department of Justice was up to that task.

He wrote: “These are the kinds of allegations that are routinely investigated by the Public Integrity Section and there is no conflict of interest that precluded their handling these matters in the normal course.”

According to a high-school classmate of Barr’s, the current attorney general always possessed a respect for authority. Barr grew up in a conservative household. His brother served in Vietnam. Donald Barr, the attorney general’s father, resigned as headmaster of the exclusive Dalton school in Manhattan after clashing with the board of trustees. In his resignation letter, the elder Barr wrote: “Everyone knows that I am somewhat anachronistic in my views of the educational leadership of a school.”

From the looks of things, Trump has the attorney general of his dreams. Like the supreme court justice Brett Kavanaugh, Barr is a loyal conservative who comes with a Bush family seal of approval. For this president, it doesn’t get better than that.