Finally, a conspiracy theory of my own.
How do we explain the behavior of William Barr and Rod Rosenstein? Here are two career Justice Department officials who have spent a lifetime building respectable reputations by playing fair and assiduously upholding the rule of law. Both have been public servants for most of their careers, and both have advanced to the highest levels. Barr began with the CIA and then moved on, after a stint in private practice, to serve in the White House and twice as U.S. Attorney General. Rosenstein was a Justice Department official his whole career, rising to Deputy A.G.
Then something happened. Both men, reputed straight-shooters respected by Republicans and Democrats alike, seemed to throw it all away. After a lifetime of building solid reputations brick by brick, they demolished them with a single swing of the headache ball.
In the Marx Brothers’ classic comedy “A Night at the Opera,” Harpo replaces a page of the overture’s score while the musicians aren’t looking, causing them to break into “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” in the middle of everything. It feels a little like that, except less funny.
But why have they crumbled? What causes a man of success and esteem to break his stride at the end, to veer off track and wander into the seamy world of power-grabbing distortion, misrepresentation, and outright lie? I don’t believe, as some do, that Trump has some magical power of persuasion that ensnares people into his thrall. And it certainly can’t be a matter of calculation that some career benefit will accrue to Barr and Rosenstein if they bend to Trump’s will. On the contrary, working for the Trump White House has been a career killer for almost everyone who has set foot inside (exceptions: William McMaster, “Mad Dog” Mattis, and Anthony Scaramucci).
It’s a mystery that has vexed every pundit. “What happened to them?” they say. “What were they thinking?” they cry. I’m not one for conspiracy theories, but I’m beginning to wonder. What explanations are left? And much as I hate to think it, there are two: greed and fear. We have to entertain the possibility that these guys are either being paid off or being threatened.
Having worked in the federal government for a time, I can tell you that every civil servant believes he or she could have made a lot more money in the private sector. I worked with a lot of engineers and lawyers and statisticians in the defense-acquisition game, and this mantra was an act of faith among professionals in the public sector; almost a slogan like “Drill, Baby, Drill!” or “Dilly Dilly!” It’s not too great a stretch to think that a guy like Barr, who had a glimpse of the big money during his tenure with a New York firm, might be swayed by what he missed. And while it’s likely that Barr already has “plenty” of money already and thus would be hard to sway with a payout, keep in mind that the Attorney General’s salary is $400,000. That would over the years make one pretty well off, to be sure—but just ask Paul Manafort what the difference is between a couple of million and tens of millions.
As for Rosenstein, he gives the impression in his behavior and his very appearance that he’s under an awful lot of strain. At one point he was ready to “wear a wire” to expose the administration’s criminality, at another he was teary-eyed promising to “land the plane” of the Mueller investigation without damage to Trump. In the end he stood stone-faced while Barr explained to the nation that absolutely nothing was wrong, like a street cop at a murder scene telling the crowd “Okay, show’s over, go back to yer homes.” Rosenstein wears the stress on his face: Is he tortured by guilt? Or by fear?
Of course it would be difficult for Trump to hide any payoffs to either man, but not impossible. It’s pretty clear that his financial house of cards has so many levels and secret passages that money could be routed over, around, and through an Escher-like maze of transactions that no forensic accountant could sort out.
As for fear, we can assume that anyone at that level of influence—and especially any man—probably has something he’d give anything to hide, whether financial, moral, or legal. And the cleaner one’s reputation, the more there is to lose.
As I say, I don’t like these sorts of theories, but I’m getting out the tin foil to make a hat.