The Trolling Of Bill Barr: How Politics Has Outstripped Meaning

Below is my column in the Hill newspaper on the rising attacks against Attorney General Bill Barr even before the redacted report has been released. Many in the media has notably omitted critical facts like Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein helped write the summary and also concluded that there was not case for criminal obstruction to be made against President Trump. There may be grounds to criticize Barr for his redactions, but critics omit the fact that Robert Mueller’s office is assisting in those redactions. I have a long relationship with Barr and testified in favor of his confirmation. However, I will not hesitate to criticize his actions when it is warranted. For example, I do not approve of the Justice Department refusing to defend the Affordable Care Act — disregarding the function of the Department to defend duly passed laws. Yet, Barr’s conduct with regard to the report and thus far been open and consistent with what he said in this confirmation hearing.

Here is the column:

In the novel “1984,” author George Orwell wrote that “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” Democrats appear to be taking that idea to heart this week with their bizarre outcry over Attorney General William Barr referring to the government “spying” that targeted Trump presidential campaign figures. Suddenly, the term “spying” was declared as categorically exclusive of any intelligence surveillance.

As someone who has done classified national security work since the Reagan administration, I was surprised by the new Democratic dialectic, but it is not the first time that I missed the memo on the updated meaning of common terms, from “wiretapping” to “collusion.” The problem for Barr is that contemporary politics has outstripped common meaning. That was evident in his two hearings in Congress this week. His answers appeared immaterial to the discussion, and lawmakers raised the objection that Barr could not possibly have read the special counsel’s report and conclusions in the 48 hours that it had taken to issue his summary of the findings.

Of course, after the report was submitted, many pundits suggested that Barr might just “sit” on it or give no information at all while refusing to release any part of it. Instead, he took only 48 hours and the narrative changed. At the House hearing, Representative Nita Lowey sarcastically called it all “quite extraordinary” that he “received a very serious detailed report, hundreds of pages of high-level information, weighed the factors and conclusions at length, outlined, prepared, edited, and released” the memo in less than 48 hours. “To me, to do this, it seems your mind must have been already made up. How did you do it?” Lowey asked him.

The response from Barr was as clear as it was crushing. He explained that he did not just get the conclusions of Robert Mueller but that the basic findings had been disclosed weeks earlier. He said that his conclusion on the lack of criminal obstruction by President Trump was reached together with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who Democrats have maintained for almost two years is essential and unassailable in reaching such findings. Finally, Barr disclosed that the special counsel staff is assisting in making redactions, the report came with summaries and Mueller had been consulted on his prior letters.

None of that mattered. It did not matter that Rosenstein described the questioning of the intentions of Barr or the necessity for redactions as “completely bizarre” and that, in his view, Barr has been “as forthcoming as he can.” The narrative has continued unabated, and billionaire Tom Steyer has even funded a national commercial repeating how ridiculous it is that Barr could have determined the conclusions of the special counsel report in just two days. His words simply did not matter until they did.

Senator Jeanne Shaheen asked why the attorney general was evidently looking into the basis for the secret investigation into the 2016 campaign. Barr explained that he was concerned about any kind of spying, foreign or domestic, on our political process. Shaheen was shocked and said, “You are not suggesting, though, that spying occurred.” Barr was again very direct and measured when he answered, “I think spying did occur. But the question is whether it was predicated, adequately predicated.” He then continued, “I am not suggesting it was not adequately predicated, but I need to explore that. I am not saying that improper surveillance occurred. I am saying that I am concerned about it and looking into it. That is all.”

Washington went into its now signature feigned vapors. Speaker Nancy Pelosi denounced the use of “spying” and said, “I do not trust Barr.” Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer called it “peddling conspiracy theories,” while House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff said the word meant that Barr was “spewing partisan talking points” and striking yet “another destructive blow to our democratic institutions.”

The most mortified observer was fired FBI Director James Comey, who took a moment on his book tour and declared, “When I hear that kind of language used, it is concerning because the FBI and the Department of Justice conduct court-ordered electronic surveillance. If the attorney general has come to the belief that that should be called spying, wow.”

That was also my reaction. Just wow. For years, “spying” and “surveillance” have been synonymous. Indeed, Democrats and the media have used the terms interchangeably, until another language change was spontaneously declared this week. It was all too familiar. Early during his administration, Trump accused the government of “wiretapping” campaign officials. The media went into a frenzy, calling that a “fake scandal” and a “diversion.”

It was later shown that campaign figures were targeted by the FBI and that secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act orders were based on an application that relied on the Steele dossier funded by the Clinton campaign. Obama national security adviser Susan Rice categorically denied that she ordered the “unmasking” of the names of Trump associates under surveillance but later admitted that was a lie. None of that mattered again. Instead, the media chose to focus on the use of “wiretapping” to insist that no literal wiretapping occurred.

From the outset, it was an absurd point. “Wiretapping” was previously often used as a generality for surveillance. “Surveillance” was a term that came into vogue later. Indeed, the Supreme Court has commonly used “wiretapping” or “eavesdropping” for “surveillance” in its opinions. There is no physical splicing of wires needed in modern surveillance. However, the entire point was that the discussion was focused on the lexicon.

The same thing occurred at the start of the special counsel investigation. Some of us supported the appointment of Mueller but warned that there was no crime of “collusion” and that related crimes such as conspiracy were highly unlikely to be established. The media discussed whether Trump was guilty of collusion, despite there being no such crime in the federal code. It did not matter until an actual alleged crime of obstruction became available, and then suddenly collusion was the context for any possible crime.

Trump is equally untethered by language. He calls his critics “traitors” and nimbly changes the meaning of even the clearest statements such as “Mexico will pay for the wall.” Neither language nor facts prove a burden for the president. If all of this is confusing, it is because you have not spent any time recently on college campuses. Speech codes are now common, and the meaning of terms is based on how language is received rather than intended. Language is now indeterminate and can easily be declared “microaggressive” solely on how it is received rather than intended.

In the same way, it does not matter that what Barr meant was reasonable or that he immediately clarified “wiretapping” as “improper surveillance.” It was important to portray as an absurdity any suggestion of the Obama administration spying on a Republican campaign, even though two key officials were targeted during the campaign. So language now reflects our politics as unhinged and undefined. We have been reduced to a language of trolls. As explained in “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” it is not hard. “Anyone can speak troll. All you have to do is point and grunt.”

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.

190 thoughts on “The Trolling Of Bill Barr: How Politics Has Outstripped Meaning”

  1. >>Instead, the media chose to focus on the use of “wiretapping” to insist that no literal wiretapping occurred.

    Thus Democrats can dismiss the “unmasking” Susan Rice admitted happened as something less than “spying,” and sleep comfortably in their warm beds…content in the knowledge that they’ve vanquished another so-called “alternative fact.”

  2. Oooh sorry but I can’t let this one pass. Like most of what Turley says but he’s 100% wrong in these two examples. Perhaps he can think of a better example?

    Turley: “Trump is equally untethered by language. He calls his critics “traitors” and nimbly changes the meaning of even the clearest statements such as “Mexico will pay for the wall.”

    “Traitor” is often used to just mean someone who has betrayed the country or undermined the basic principles of the country. In this case Trump is referring to a “soft coup” by the FBI/CIA to remove him by means of a corrupt investigation. Now skipping past whether that actually happened or not, can we agree that if the CIA / FBI did attempt to overthrow the US president, as Trump suggests, that the word most people would use for that is “treason”? That’s not Trump making things up. That’s the word most people would use. Indeed what other word would be more appropriate?

    As for “Mexico will pay” Trump is on record as repeatedly and clearly saying during the election period that he didn’t necessarily mean a big cash payment from Mexico and that it could be some indirect means of payment, of which he gave at least two examples. The first was that he might mess with the money immigrants try to send home to their families. The second was that he’d renegotiate NAFTA. He said this at the time of the election. To suggest that only after the election did he redefine what he meant is simply false.

  3. LBJ and Bill Clinton.

    Psychopathic’ presidents

    A 2012 study by psychologists from Emory University in Georgia found several presidents exhibited psychopathic traits, including Bill Clinton.
    The two determined to be most psychopathic were Lyndon Baines Johnson and Andrew Jackson

    Psychopathic attributes were identified by the Emory team as superficial charm, egocentricity, dishonesty, callousness, risk-taking, poor impulse control and fearlessness.

    LBJ, for example, had an ego the size of his home state of Texas.

    1. Continued from above….


      (LBJ) He brazenly stole his 1948 Senate election, then even more shamelessly joked about it, according to Robert Caro’s multi-volume biography.

      Johnson thought nothing of casually putting his hand up another woman’s skirt while his wife, Lady Bird, was sitting right next to him.
      He liked to humiliate underlings by summoning them to take dictation while he urinated in a washbasin or defecated in a toilet.

      However, LBJ may have caused his own political Alamo with widely suspected lies to the American people about a fake naval skirmish in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964.

      Johnson used the incident to dramatically escalate the US war in Vietnam.

      But amid the ensuing hecatomb of the Tet Offensive four years later, LBJ announced he would not run for a second term.

      Andrew Jackson – who signed the ethnic-cleansing Indian Removal Act – is remembered today more for his cruelty than for the enviable accomplishment of being the only president ever to fully pay off the national debt.

      And Bill Clinton’s reputation, of course, was left in tatters by his sexual impulsivity.

      1. Psychiatrists should only make educated guesses about someone’s mental health, without an examination, of those who have already passed.

        LBJ sounds like a real peach. I also know, from those who were there, that his staff would water down his drinks to slow him down in his inebriation, when he was President. When he discovered it, he got really, really, really mad. This was while he was President, not before when he was a senator. It was said that he had his drinks watered down as a senator so that he could keep a clearer head. His staff began using that trick, without his knowledge, to try to handle his heavy drinking while in office.

      2. Estovir,
        A couple of bits of trivia about LBJ…..he did not get along with the Kennedy clan, especially RFK.
        And with the exception of Jackie….they seemed to like and respect each other.
        JFK and some other Kennedys would jokingly call him “Landslide Lyndon”, in reference to his tiny lead he “got” in the winning his Senate seats in 1948.
        I don’t think Ken Burns mentioned this and a couple of other things in his Vietnamese documentary: about two weeks before the 1964 election (and a few months after the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution), he allayed voters’ concerns by assuring the nation that he had “no intention of sending American boys 8 or 10 thousand miles away to fight a war that Vietnamese boys should be fighting”.
        Within about a year, he had sent over 150,000 more U.S. troops to Vietnam, in addition to the c. 25,000 already there who had been primarily acting as advisors.

          Another fairly recent discovery was LBJ’s thought of going to the 1968 Chicago Convention to “reluctantly accept” a draft LBJ nomination.
          If that convention and nearby confrontations appeared to have been “choatic”, I can guess what would have happened if LBJ showed up.
          I don’t think it would have had much of a “calming effect” on the already-tense, heated environment.

    2. One of the psychiatrists who testified at Patty Hearst’s trial in early 1976 was interviewed later by Shana Alexander. He was a specialist in forensic psychiatry. Hearst’s lawyers had retained academic psychiatrists. The forensic specialist tells Alexander that establishment psychiatrists have two deficiencies in his opinion, “They know little about normal, healthy behavior an they meet very few criminals, radicals, or terrorists”. When was the last time any of those clowns at Emory ever met someone who grew up on the colonial Frontier without two nickels to his name?

        Shana Alexander was the liberal foil to conservative James J. Kilpatrick or sometimes Nicholas von Hoffman on the old “Point-Counter Point” debates.
        SNL would have a lot of fun doing parodies of those Point-Counterpoint exchanges.

  4. Here are three excerpts from Roger Stone’s discovery motions seeking the full un-redacted Mueller report:

    His lawyers must be allowed to review the Report in its entirety because it contains the government’s evidence and conclusions on matters essential to Stone’s defense. Starting with the base assumptions by the Special Counsel that Russians hacked the Democratic National Committee, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and Clinton Campaign email databases (see Indictment, ¶¶ 1-3, 7, 18, 20, 39);

    The Office of the Special Counsel has since concluded its investigation and has found that there is no evidence of collusion between Russia and those associated with the presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump.

    Previously, however, opposing counsel designated this case as related to that of United States of America v. Netyksho, et al. (1:18-cr-00215-ABJ), because the government claimed that communications between Guccifer 2.0 and Stone were obtained from the Netyksho search warrant.

    The defendant’s false statements did not arise in a vacuum: they were made in the course of an investigation into possible links between Russian individuals (including the Netyksho defendants), individuals associated with the dumping of materials (including Organization 1), and U.S. persons (including the defendant).

    1. The last paragraph of the excerpt above was from the government’s response to Stone’s motion for discovery of the full un-redacted Muller report. Here’s a fuller excerpt from the government’s response:

      The defendant’s false statements did not arise in a vacuum: they were made in the course of an investigation into possible links between Russian individuals (including the Netyksho defendants), individuals associated with the dumping of materials (including Organization 1), and U.S. persons (including the defendant).


      In the course of investigating that activity, the government obtained and executed dozens of search warrants on various accounts used to facilitate the transfer of stolen documents for release, as well as to discuss the timing and promotion of their release. Several of those search warrants were executed on accounts that contained Stone’s communications with Guccifer 2.0 and with Organization 1.

  5. So The Washington Post filed a FOIA request to unseal the redactions from the Manafort breach hearing transcripts. Below are two excerpts from the most recent government brief opposing that request:

    The redactions at issue were undertaken and approved recently—from December 2018, through March 2019. No material changes have occurred in these past months. Although the Special Counsel has concluded his work, he has also referred a number of matters to other offices. The ongoing investigations that required redactions—many of which were already being conducted by other offices—remain ongoing. And the privacy interests that warranted redactions remain the same.


    The Manafort case has been transferred from the Special Counsel’s Office to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and the attorneys who were principally responsible for that case are no longer representing the government in this matter. The redactions are intended to protect ongoing investigations that are being handled by various attorneys in various offices. It is unknown how long some of these investigations may remain ongoing. And some of the privacy interests that are being protected may persist indefinitely. For the government to “promptly notify” (Mem. 18) the Court of any relevant development would impose a duty not just on the attorneys who have taken over responsibility for the Manafort case, but also on other attorneys throughout this and other offices and their successors. Given the breadth of the related investigations, it would be extremely burdensome, if not impossible, for the government to ensure such prompt reporting and to undertake regular reassessment in this case.

    [end excerpt]

    One way to interpret what the government says above is that they are not quite through with Paul Manafort yet.

    1. So the investigations formerly known as the Mueller probe are “many” and have been referred to “various” other United States Attorney’s offices presumably because those investigations are not explicitly related to an agreement between the Trump campaign and the Russian government in its election interference activities, but a few of which investigations, instead, may very well be related to almost any number of agreements between various members of the Trump campaign or Trump associates and certain Russian-affiliated individuals who had offered assistance to the Trump campaign without actually being officials of the Russian government.

      Well, yes, of course, that is the way the Russians do things–with cut-outs who have plausible deniability or who can be “burned” or worse, if needs be. For instance, the founder of a certain radical transparency organization could be construed as a Russian-affiliated individual who offered assistance to various members of the Trump campaign or Trump associates. And the government is telling both Roger Stone’s lawyers and the court hearing the WaPo’s FOIA request for the un-redacted transcripts of Manafort’s breach hearings that it knows not for how much longer the investigations formerly known as the Mueller probe might “remain ongoing.”

      No wonder the Easter-Island Monolith known as Robert Swan Mueller The Third is still not speaking in public.

  6. Sandra H.,
    One of the first things Holder did as the new AG in the very early stages of the Obama Administration was to stop or quickly wrap up the ongoing investigation into voter intimidation by the New Black Panthers.
    Maybe Obama and Holder thought that the NB Panthers were merely “extremely careless'”.

  7. Professor Turley – I appreciate your perspective but you are far too kind to the Left… you said this about President Trump – “Neither language nor facts prove a burden …” . Let’s remember who has lied for the last 24 months and often under oath: Waters, Shiff, Comey, Clapper, Rice, McCabe, Brennan, Mills, Abedin, Powers, Ohr(s), Steele, Yates, Lynch. For 2+ years, this cabal has lied over and over and over. But they didn’t do it in public — they did it clandestinely and covertly in an attempt to alter the voters choice. Here’s an excellent read ….

  8. Today they are coming after Barr. Tomorrow they will be coming after the people who work for Barr.

    1. You know I have to be honest here. Trump has taken discourse to a low unknown. I disagree but understand the need for Democrats to respond the way they do. They are caught in the same dilemma as Lindsey Graham. A recent Post article indicated that his newly found obsequiousness is paying off in the polls. I suspect Democrats get the same bump by acting this way. Congress is becoming a real mirror of ourselves.

      1. Jeff, you’re right in the sense that polarization breeds polarization. And it all starts at the top.

          1. Did you know that it takes two poles to tango?

            Of course, it also takes two Poles to polka. Nyuk, nyuk. Who’s there?

            1. Diane, some people as they age become more racist in their language as demonstrated above. Since you seem to have an interest in aphasia’s I suppose you have been scouring Wikipedia to answer concerns you have about yourself.

    2. Two replies blaming Trump for the attacks on Barr. Reminds me of being a little kid complaining to Mom that ‘he hit me first.’ Mom didn’t fall for it then, and we shouldn’t now.

      The attacks on Barr are intellectually dishonest. He’s done an admirable job handling the Mueller report. His investigation into FISA abuse could uncover one of the greatest scandals in American history. Abuse of the government’s secret surveillance power is important stuff. Bipartisan stuff.

      But there are powerful oxes that don’t want to be gored. Today they are coming after Barr. Tomorrow they will come after the people who work for Barr.

    3. “When they go low, we go high” – M.O.
      “When they go low, we kick them’” -Eric Holder
      ‘When they go low, you go lower’ – Bill Maher to Dems
      “civility can start again” when Democrats retake control in Congress – Hillary Clinton

      “When they go low, we kick ‘em in the nuts.” – Sean Clegg, a longtime Democratic strategist in California

      or as the Democrats said about Blacks up until recently: “Lynch em”

  9. Speaker Nancy Pelosi denounced the use of “spying” and said, “I do not trust Barr.” Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer called it “peddling conspiracy theories,” while House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff said the word meant that Barr was “spewing partisan talking points” and striking yet “another destructive blow to our democratic institutions.”

    As a Self Governing and independent Constitutional Citizen I do not trust Pelosi after having read her shenanigans trying to get special favors in the reduction of property taxes nor in her violation of her Oath of Office in seating people who refused to take the Constitutionally required Oath office. I don’t trust Senator Schumer who turned against his Oath of Office and even his religion after having used it to advance himself by supporting the enemies of our country. i don’t trust Schiff who fouls our Constitutional Republic and it’s Institutions by calling themselves something they are not inasmuch as our founders rejected nine times a democracy and his claim to the contrary.

    I can neither recognize nor countenance the actions of this group nor their founders nor their falsehoods

  10. As should be clear to anyone, the difference between Trump and his Democratic critics is that Trump defends while they attack and lie – often. They have brought on the speech codes, the Orwell speak and the persecution of conservative students and speakers on campus. As such, they are enemies of democracy in general and the nation’s lawful institutions specifically. They need to be prosecuted for the sedition they have raised to high art form. Like Hungary, you start with evicting Soros and his nefarious NGOs. You pressure colleges to live up to their ideals by letting everyone speak there including black panthers, white supremicists and every viewpoint in between. If students swoon with the vapors over the freedom they encounter, send them off to the military for toughness training.

      1. Wow!!!
        Where is Pelosi, Nadler, Schumer, CNN, MSNBC, et al denouncing the media inciting assassinating the President?

        CBS All-Access’ “The Good Wife” spinoff series, “The Good Fight,” is in hot water after tweeting an image from one of its episodes that shows a list of “target words” including: “Assassinate,” “President” and “Trump” in a red column and a second orange column that started with the words: “Mar-a-Lago” and “Eliminate.”

        1. Even the assignment of false colors needs taken to task. The Socialist side are clearly the real Reds while the Constitutionalists are just as clearly the Red, White and Blue. Is there any level of perfidity low enough to be spurned by these Socialist outcasts from the ranks of decent people and Citizens?

    1. Off Topic


      You might obtain this book and dedicate some time to the perspective on Lincoln’s arbitrary, despotic and tyrannical jailing of journalists, suspension of freedom of the press and Habeas Corpus, etc., and that of the quandary of Major Henry Wirz of Andersonville Confederate Prison who, allegedly, had no food, clothing, shelter, medical supplies or anything else to offer inmates as the Union forces were destroying not only the army but the residential, industrial and agricultural components of the CSA.

      Title Crimes and Cover-ups in American Politics: 1776-1963
      Author Donald Jeffries
      Contributor Ron Paul
      Publisher Skyhorse, 2019
      ISBN 151074147X, 9781510741478
      Length 408 pages
      Subjects Political Science › American Government › General

      1. I’ve read quite a bit about Lincoln and Wirz. Everybody reads about Lincoln and I disagree with characterization of the greatest wartime President as being a tyrannical oppressor. The copperheads were every bit the enemy as were the confederates. However on Wirz I suggest you read the trial transcripts in the Library of Congress. Wirz had supply challenges to be sure but the evidence shows his death by hanging to be more than warranted. He was a cruel murderer, director of murders and tolerated unordered murder by his guards.

        1. Mespo,

          Crimes and Cover-ups in American Politics: 1776-1963 Hardcover – Donald Jeffries – June 18, 2019

          No one has read the book yet. It will be released in June. In an interview, the author seemed convinced of Lincoln’s tyranny and sympathetic with Wirz’s “dilemma.” I thought it might provide some perspective. Maybe not.

          The author claims that Lincoln jailed thousand of publishers. That can only be illicit, antithetical and tyrannical in a nation with free speech and a free press. The author also claims that Wirz had crippling “supply challenges” and that Wirz was attempting to negotiate the repatriation of Union soldiers while the North refused.

          Does the Constitution preclude secession? That would seem counterintuitive given that the Framers seceded from Great Britain. If the Constitution allows secession, Lincoln had no grounds or authority to prosecute war (the U.S. must have withdrawn from the CSA), proclamations, seizure of private property, suspension of Habeas Corpus or any related acts.

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