COMMENT: By George Conway

When the subject of Attorney General William Barr comes up these days, it's hard not to think of John McCain. Not the late senator, mind you, but the USS John S. McCain, the naval destroyer named after his father and grandfather.

It was an incident involving this ship that, as much as anything else, captures how the Trump administration - and its attorney general - operates. It explains Barr's intervention into the criminal sentencing of Trump's longtime friend and adviser, felon Roger Stone, and much, much more.

The McCain was docked at the Yokosuka Naval Base in Japan in May 2019, when the 7th Fleet issued a directive that had originated from conversations with the White House Military Office. The president was coming to Yokosuka on Memorial Day, and so, accordingly: "USS John McCain needs to be out of sight." So sailors were ordered to hang a tarp over the vessel's name, and they removed any coverings that bore the words "John S. McCain."

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President Donald Trump didn't need to say a word. It just happened. He didn't even know, he later said. But he was hardly displeased. "I was not a big fan of John McCain in any shape or form," Trump said. "Now, somebody did it because they thought I didn't like him, OK? And they were well-meaning."

Anticipating Trump's narcissistic whims and desires in just this fashion remains the key to survival in his administration, and outside the White House proper, no one does it better than Barr. It's thus entirely believable, as both Barr and Trump have said, that Trump never gave Barr any instruction about Stone's case.

But no one could doubt, least of all Barr, what Trump's reaction would be to line prosecutors' recommendation of a seven- to nine-year sentence for Stone. When Stone was convicted in November on seven counts of witness tampering and lying to Congress, the president of the United States tweeted, "Well, what about Crooked Hillary, Comey, Strzok, Page, McCabe, Brennan, Clapper, Shifty Schiff, Ohr & Nellie, Steele & all of the others, including even Mueller himself? Didn't they lie?"

So when it came to Stone's sentence, Barr likely knew what to do, without ever being told. And he has known what to do, whenever feasible, to keep Trump happy all along. Even before he became attorney general, he was singing a tune that must have been music to Trump's ears: He sent an unsolicited memo to the Justice Department arguing (wrongly) that Trump was legally incapable of obstructing the Mueller investigation.

Attorney General William Barr speaks at the National Sheriffs' Association Winter Legislative and Technology Conference in Washington. Photo / AP
Attorney General William Barr speaks at the National Sheriffs' Association Winter Legislative and Technology Conference in Washington. Photo / AP

Later, when he received Mueller's final report, Barr misled the public about it, facilitating Trump's endlessly repeated - but false - mantra that the report exonerated the president. Since then, Barr has personally supervised a mysterious re-investigation of the Russia investigation, seemingly trying to substantiate his boss' conspiracy theories about the original investigation's origins. And now we have his intervention in favor of Stone, which duly earned him the president's praise, and his reported review of politically sensitive (meaning, sensitive to Trump) criminal cases, such as the one against former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

The most important thing Barr did for Trump, though, involved the arms-for-dirt-on-Biden Ukraine scandal - which should have prompted a full-blown criminal investigation with a special counsel. Any U.S. attorney's office would fall over itself to investigate, for example, a state governor who, while running for reelection against a former mayor, so much as hinted to the mayor's successor that, say, highway funds would be restricted unless the current mayor were to announce an inquiry into her predecessor's alleged corruption.

But instead of investigating the Ukraine shakedown, Barr's Justice Department immediately gave the president a clean bill of health. Saving Trump from that criminal investigation was more than what Roy Cohn ever did for any of his clients.

So when Barr announced this week that "I think it's time to stop tweeting about Department of Justice criminal cases," and that the president's statements "make it impossible for me to do my job and to assure the courts and the prosecutors and the department that we're doing our work with integrity" - he wasn't actually standing up for the Justice Department's integrity, or its independence, or for the rule of law.

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To the contrary, as his (and my) friend Fox News host Laura Ingraham put it, "Barr was basically telling Trump, don't worry I got this." In other words, don't blow this by calling attention to all that I do for you. Don't say the quiet part out loud.

But the president will never listen, and what Barr does for him will never be enough. Now having been acquitted by the Senate, Trump thinks he's bulletproof, legally and otherwise. He now brags, as he tweeted on Saturday, that he is "'the King'" who was targeted but not taken down. And, drawing on a story in the New York Times that suggested he is stained but unshackled, Trump boasted that he has indeed survived "triumphant" and "emboldened" and "focused" more than ever on prosecuting "'his case of grievance, persecution, and resentment.'"

So Trump wants to say the quiet part out loud; he wants to say he's got this. And there's no one to stop him.