William Barr’s Testimony, and Reasons to Be Snitty
“I said, ‘Bob, what’s with the letter?’ ” Attorney General William Barr recounted in his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. “ ‘Why don’t you just pick up the phone and call me if there’s an issue?’ ” Bob—that is, Robert Mueller, the special counsel in charge of the investigation into Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 election—had sent Barr the letter on March 27th, three days after Barr had released his own letter purporting, in four pages, to convey the principal conclusions of Mueller’s more than four-hundred-page report. Mueller had been fairly clear about what was, as Barr put it, with the letter: Barr’s statement “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance of this Office’s work and conclusions.” And, in its wake, there was “now public confusion.” Barr told Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, that the letter had prompted him to call Mueller, on speaker phone, while several people, including Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, were in the room with him. As Blumenthal questioned Barr about his subsequent exchange with Mueller, Barr picked up what appeared to be a copy of Mueller’s letter and gave it a sour scan. “The letter’s a bit snitty,” he said. “I think it was probably written by one of his staff.”
“Snitty” is a word of relatively recent origin; Merriam-Webster traces the appearance of the underlying noun, “snit,” to 1939. It echoes something of the meaning of snipe and snip, and even snitch—of pettiness and petulance. It hardly seems right as a way to describe the concerns that Mueller—a man with a long and distinguished career in law enforcement—had about a possible blow to public confidence in his investigation, or in the Justice Department, or in both. And yet the complaint perfectly expresses the culture of the Trump Administration. Calling people “snitty” is a way of accusing them of being weak, mewling, and rule-bound, with a pathetic belief in fairness. It’s the bully’s retort upon being called out—expressing the same resentment that might, say, lead a President to commit what the Mueller report refers to as potentially “obstructive acts.” “Snitty” is used to conjure up the image of people whom one would rather ignore stamping their feet—which may be why Barr joined it with the supposition that the letter Mueller signed was written “by one of his staff.”
The question of what “staff” might be capable of was, it seems, already on Barr’s mind. After the Senate hearing, it emerged that he had decided not to appear at a parallel hearing in the House, scheduled for Thursday, supposedly because he objected to being questioned by lawyers on the committee staff rather than by the representatives themselves. The committee is responding with a flurry of subpoenas; the issue of the Trump Administration’s evasions of congressional oversight is not a new one, and it won’t go away. But Barr does a particularly bad job of hiding his disdain. At one point, Blumenthal asked him if anyone had taken notes of the “what’s with the letter” call. Barr confirmed that some people had done so. “May we have those notes?” Blumenthal asked.
“No,” Barr replied.
“Why not?” Blumenthal asked.
“Why should you have them?” Barr said.
Who do these senators think they are? Barr’s own recollection of the call was an exercise in blame. According to Barr, Mueller said that he was “concerned about the way the media was playing this” and wanted his executive summaries released in order to “avoid some of the confusion that was emerging.” Barr continued, “I asked him if he felt that my letter was misleading or inaccurate, and he said no, that the press—he felt that the press coverage was.” At this point, Barr has shown himself to be enough of an unreliable narrator that it makes sense to wait and learn if this is also Mueller’s recollection. (Mueller does not specifically mention the press in his letter.) But it is worth asking what Barr is saying here about the press: the coverage, up until then, was based only on his four-page letter. If the coverage was inaccurate or misleading, how might that have happened—was the press making things up? Barr doesn’t appear to mind implying that reporters either are incapable of basic reading comprehension or just act in bad faith. Earlier in the hearing, Senator John Kennedy, Republican of Louisiana, also raised what he called “the news-coverage issue” and asked Barr, “What were you supposed to do about that?” Noting that the report was now out, the senator called the whole matter moot and added, “None of us can control what the news publishes or prints, except the media.” Nor should anyone—but it would be helpful, sometimes, if the press had truthful material to work with. And Congress might do something about that.