Reprinted with permission from MediaMatters
Many mainstream media outlets fell right for the bait from Attorney General Bill Barr’s public complaint that President Donald Trump’s tweets on specific cases were making it “impossible for me to do my job.” Here, they thought, was some genuine daylight between the attorney general and the president — in the wake of Barr’s intervention to overrule the sentencing recommendations against former Trump campaign associate Roger Stone, and the resignations of four Department of Justice professionals.
But here’s the thing: Right-wing media weren’t actually fooled. (Well, maybe a laggard or two didn’t quite catch on.) Most of them understood perfectly what was going on. That’s why major right-wing activists and even far-right conspiracy theorists were so quick to leap to Barr’s defense.
Like a vaudeville or cartoon villain who can’t resist breaking the fourth wall and gloating right to the audience, these right-wing commentators tell us Barr is accomplishing two different things: Asking Trump to leave him alone so that he can actually carry out Trump’s desired objectives and psyching out the media into thinking he’s not just following Trump’s orders.
Just as the story was breaking, Fox News’ Sean Hannity immediately leapt to put Barr’s frustrations in context to listeners of his radio show, thus tamping down any instinct for his audience to be mad about the attorney general’s seeming dissension. After all, Hannity explained, Barr needs to do his job.
And that night, Fox News host Laura Ingraham put it succinctly: “The media sees this sexy story of Trump versus Barr, but they missed the fact that Barr was basically telling Trump, ‘Don’t worry, I got this.’”
And others noticed a second angle here: Barr is pulling a mind game with the media, to make everybody think he’s in a feud with Trump — thereby taking away a point of criticism of the attorney general.
On the Thursday evening after the story broke, Will Chamberlain of Human Events called it “some old school PR wizardry.”
“But think about it, there’s a 4-D chess play here,” Chamberlain explained. “What is the criticism of Barr — what is the criticism of him? It’s that he’s Trump’s toady, right? Like, that’s the Elizabeth Warren thing. They’re saying, ‘Oh, he’s just Trump’s hand dog.’ Well, now literally every mainstream media outlet is reporting that ‘Barr is criticizing Trump vociferously.’ Meaning that he’s just managed, by this one press conference, to create distance between himself and the president, which is sort of what is needed to defang every bit of the criticism that is going on of President Trump.”
“Everybody knows Barr is doing a lot of work, he’s doing a good job,” Chamberlain later added, mentioning that the White House had already expressed full and continued confidence in Barr. “I mean, the single most decisive intervention was Barr squashing the Mueller report. And there’s a lot that Barr has done that’s really good. He seems to be pulling back on the Flynn case, seems to, you know, pulling back on the Stone thing, you know, getting these terrible, lying Mueller prosecutors out of there.”
And on Fox News, former Secretary of Education and now Fox Nation host Bill Bennett even speculated Friday morning that seemingly “attacking” Trump would really serve to take the heat off Barr from Democrats.
Co-anchor Sandra Smith even added that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnel (R-KY) “didn’t waste any time taking the back of Bill Barr on that one.”
Note: This supposed maneuver to make Democrats think Barr is somehow on their side really doesn’t work — especially when Bennett gets up in public and explains the attempt at a mind game.
There were also a handful of mainstream outlets that got it. Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan explained:
As we previously noted, CNN’s Chris Cuomo called the move a “ploy,” explaining the White House’s statement of continued confidence in Barr and noted of Trump: “You’ve never heard him say that about anybody who said anything close to what Barr just did. I wonder why.”
And on MSNBC’s Hardball, former CIA Director John Brennan and former federal prosecutor Paul Butler explained to Chris Matthews that Barr still has a lot of maneuvering room.
“He is just so self-centered — Donald Trump — that anybody who has the audacity to challenge him, or to criticize him, is going to be within the line of fire,” explained Brennan, a longtime Trump detractor. “And that’s why I do have questions about what happened today with William Barr, whether or not this was coordinated with the White House,” he said, adding that he thought Barr was trying to prevent “a full-scale revolt within the Department of Justice.”
Butler summed it up: “Trump needs Barr more than Barr needs Trump. So, I think Barr has some room. But again, the question is, how will he exercise his power? And from everything we know, he will continue to be the president’s Roy Cohn.”