Trolling of Bill Barr shows how language is twisted to politics

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 BarrWilliam Pelham BarrThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Anticipation high ahead of first debate Attorney General Barr plays bagpipes at conference The Hill's Morning Report - Democratic debates: Miami nice or spice? MORE 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 LoweyNita Sue LoweyHouse approves bill increasing federal worker pay House Democrats unveil changes to border bill to win over progressives Congress unlikely to reach deal on Trump border bill before break MORE 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.

ADVERTISEMENT

The response from Barr was as clear as it was crushing. He explained that he did not just get the conclusions of Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerTop Republican considered Mueller subpoena to box in Democrats Kamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Dem committees win new powers to investigate Trump MORE but that the basic findings had been disclosed weeks earlier. He said that his conclusion on the lack of criminal obstruction by President TrumpDonald John Trump2020 Democrats spar over socialism ahead of first debate Senate passes .5 billion border bill, setting up fight with House 'Teflon Don' avoids the scorn of the 'family values' GOP — again MORE was reached together with Deputy Attorney General Rod RosensteinRod RosensteinMueller to testify publicly on July 17 Trump: Appointing Sessions was my biggest mistake Trump blasts Mueller, decries 'witch hunt' at 2020 launch MORE, 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 ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenDemocrats want White House hopefuls to cool it on Biden attacks Key endorsements: A who's who in early states Design leaks for Harriet Tubman bill after Mnuchin announces delay MORE 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 PelosiNancy PelosiSenate passes .5 billion border bill, setting up fight with House Pelosi: Congress will receive election security briefing in July Trump says he spoke to Pelosi, McConnell on border package MORE denounced the use of “spying” and said, “I do not trust Barr.” Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerTrump goes after Democrats over photo of drowned migrants Schumer displays photo of drowned migrants on Senate floor in appeal to Trump McConnell-backed Super PAC says nominating Roy Moore would be 'gift wrapping' seat to Dems MORE called it “peddling conspiracy theories,” while House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Anticipation high ahead of first debate Democratic lawmaker: Mueller testimony 'doesn't have to go beyond' report to be 'really damning' for Trump 'Fox & Friends' co-host: 'I don't think' Mueller knows the details of Mueller report MORE 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 ComeyJames Brien ComeyBiden is the least electable candidate — here's why Top Mueller prosecutor Andrew Weissmann lands book deal Trump to appear on 'Meet the Press' for first time as president MORE, 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.