Attorney General William P. Barr spoke at a conference in Washington last October.Credit...T.J. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times

Did William Barr Throw Down the Gauntlet?

Or was it just a performance?


This article is part of David Leonhardt’s newsletter. You can sign up here to receive it each weekday.

There are two plausible explanations for William Barr’s surprising criticism of President Trump yesterday.

The first is the literal one. Barr, the attorney general, lashed out at Trump — for “a constant background commentary that undercuts” the Justice Department — because Barr is legitimately upset. He’s upset not only about the perception that Trump is inappropriately interfering in investigations but also the reality of it.

The second explanation is the performative one. Barr criticized Trump, perhaps even with Trump’s approval, to shore up the Justice Department’s credibility as an independent agency that makes decisions based on the law, not the president’s whims. In this scenario, Barr is happy to use the Justice Department to help Trump but would prefer the help to be less obvious.

Which is the right interpretation? It’s impossible to know right now. (I’ve excerpted some speculation below.) But the answer will almost certainly become clear in the coming months, if not days.

If Barr meant what he said, he will begin acting more like attorneys general have been acting for decades. He will make decisions based on the law, even when they conflict with the president’s political interests. He will uphold the Justice Department’s post-Watergate tradition of being the most independent, least partisan part of the executive branch.

If Barr’s remarks were just cover, he will make more decisions like this week’s, in which he overruled career prosecutors to protect Roger Stone, a Trump ally. Barr will also likely use the department as a weapon against Trump’s political opponents, like James Comey and whomever the Democratic nominee is.

Many of Trump’s critics reacted to Barr’s statement last night with deep cynicism. Others argued that Barr deserved the benefit of the doubt. We’ll find out who was right soon enough.

For more

Josh Barro, New York magazine: “Authorizing your subordinate to go out and push back on you to demonstrate independence that will help him operate can be a smart tactic, but it’s not really Trump’s style. His whole message the last few days has been that this is his show and he can do what he wants.”

David French, The Dispatch: “Barr is exactly right. It was time to throw down the gauntlet.”

Adam Serwer, The Atlantic: “[Absent] any substantive act of resisting political influence over the Justice Department, this is just theater meant to fabricate the appearance of independence. Since Barr is still doing whatever Trump tells him to do, it means nothing.”

Susan Hennessey, Lawfare: “Bill Barr is reportedly facing an internal revolt at the Justice Department … This is Bill Barr attempting to quell that revolt by making a big, splashy statement.”

Noah Bookbinder, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington: “If Attorney General Barr doesn’t want to be accused of being influenced by the President, then he should stop intervening in cases involving the President and his associates and start behaving like an independent Attorney General.”

Stephanie Grisham, White House press secretary: “The president wasn’t bothered by the comments at all.”

The Argument

On this week’s episode, we talk about Barr, as well as Bernie Sanders, and we debate whether Valentine’s Day is a lovely ritual — or the worst holiday of the year.

If you are not a subscriber to this newsletter, you can subscribe here. You can also join me on Twitter (@DLeonhardt) and Facebook.

Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.