As the NSA and GCHQ hail the 75th anniversary of their alliance, successive presidents refuse to pardon #EdwardSwowden and a growing number of convicted whistleblowers. Were they traitors to their country, or is there another reason?
In the first Monday in May, the Department of Justice headquarters in Washington was on coronavirus lockdown — or at least it appeared to be from the outside. Signs posted on the outer doors facing Independence Avenue admonished visitors to keep out if they had symptoms of Covid-19 or had been “exposed to any person diagnosed” with it. Inside, the guards operating the X-ray machines wore masks and gloves. Across the lobby, a free-standing pump of hand sanitizer cast a cautionary shadow down empty marble halls.
But as you drew closer to the fifth floor, where Attorney General William Pelham Barr works out of a suite of offices, things started to loosen up. One assistant outside his conference room wore a mask, but the other did not. In the middle of the room, with its oil paintings and vaulted ceiling, the long central table had fewer chairs than you might expect, and an appropriate distance between them. But past the next door, inside the attorney general’s smaller personal office, Barr himself was also mask-free. Turning around to greet his visitors, he moved into the middle of a wide circle of four chairs arranged in front of his desk.
Now nearing the end of his career, Barr did not take his current job for the glory. He had already been attorney general once, in President George H.W. Bush’s administration, winning him a reputation as a wise old man — a reputation that, in the eyes of some, his tenure in the Trump administration has tarnished. Nor is he doing it for the money. His time in corporate America earned him tens of millions of dollars in compensation and stock options, and his bearing is still that of a Fortune 500 counsel, cozy manners wrapped around a harder core.
“I’m not going to insist that you have a mask,” Barr said, though I had been asked to bring one. His tone was jokingly conspiratorial, as though he were making an exception for an old friend. Barr is sometimes described as “rumpled,” an adjective that also captures his professorial manner. His speaking voice is very soft, just loud enough to be consistently perceptible; his accent is patrician, with a trace of old New York. His personality breaks through mostly in frequent moments of humor, which range from clubby chuckles to tension-breaking eruptions.
“If you want to take it off … ,” an aide added. Barr crossed the circle of chairs, grinning away any awkwardness. We bumped elbows. “I’m not going to infect you,” he said in the same joshing tone. The greater risk, of course, was that I might infect him, given his cabinet-level access to regular coronavirus testing, the difference in our ages, Barr’s regular meetings with the president and the mostly one-way prophylactic value of masks in general.
“Go ahead and take it off,” his aide suggested again. I took it off.
That Monday, the whole country was doing the same dance. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had recommended that all Americans wear masks at meetings like this one. President Trump was doing something else, and so, for the time being, was the White House staff. Vice President Mike Pence, having been wrong-footed after taking the no-mask custom to the Mayo Clinic, now seemed to be making it up as he went along. Eight weeks into the global pandemic, a charitable observer might still have described the administration’s response as improvisational or misguided, as opposed to willfully cavalier. But things were about to get worse. That day, Trump’s projection of the total U.S. death toll (75,000 to 100,000), which was given the previous evening at the Lincoln Memorial, would be challenged by an internal Trump-administration document predicting that the number of daily deaths would rise into June. The reckless faith of the president’s inner circle would be challenged when two members of the White House staff tested positive for the coronavirus. Barr and I did not know it then, but we were enjoying the tail end of the Trump administration’s libertine phase. On May 27, the official death toll would surpass 100,000, the upper bound of what Trump predicted on May 3.
One has to assume that Trump is keeping a close eye on the 70-year-old Barr right now. The powers of the attorney general, as the executive branch’s rule interpreter and law enforcer, peak during moments of social unrest. Barr knows these powers well: He led the Justice Department through the Los Angeles riots of 1992, when Bush invoked the Insurrection Act and deployed thousands of soldiers and Marines. (Later, Barr said the L.A. riots were “opportunistic” gang activity and not “the product of some festering injustice.”) Like Trump, Barr is a stalwart believer in the righteousness of the police; those communities that fail to give the police “respect and support,” he said in a December speech, “might find themselves without the police protection they need.” Last summer, Barr dropped the department’s federal case against the New York police officer who killed Eric Garner during an arrest in 2014.
Barr’s role also gives him influence over three major political fronts heading into November.
- First, there is Trump’s fight to open the nation’s economy, which could depend in no small part on Barr’s interpretation of federal authority and willingness to twist governors’ arms. Then there are
- the mechanics of the vote itself, a topic of great partisan controversy about which the Justice Department has shown a growing willingness to weigh in. Finally, there is
- the ongoing investigation led by John Durham, the United States attorney in Connecticut, into the origins of the F.B.I.’s Russia probe in the run-up to the 2016 election, the findings of which are widely expected to be announced before November.
With the election now on the horizon, Barr defended his record in two recent interviews. His critics charge that, since becoming attorney general, he has repeatedly steered the Justice Department toward decisions that serve Trump’s interests — particularly around the investigations, carried out by the F.B.I. and Robert S. Mueller III, into Russian influence over the 2016 election. Barr insists that he acts independently, even as the president often undermines that claim by tweeting out apparent instructions for what his attorney general ought to do.
By the time of our first meeting in his office, Barr had already started looking at how the federal government might intervene in state-ordered coronavirus shutdowns. As Trump accused Democratic governors of denying citizens their “freedom” and encouraged residents to “liberate” Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia, Barr zeroed in on the nuts and bolts of the legal case for “liberation”: When two small churches filed lawsuits, seeking to hold live services despite state or local regulations, the Justice Department made filings in support of their First Amendment rights. In a signed memorandum sent to the department’s 93 United States attorneys, Barr suggested that the federal government’s interest went beyond protecting live worship. It included “disfavored speech and undue interference with the national economy.”
Three weeks before our interview, Trump bragged that he held “total” authority over the states. This went against the prevailing view that the federal government, while free to enforce a variety of measures during its own emergencies, is more constrained in its authority to compel state or local governments to lift theirs. When I asked Barr what Trump meant, he responded by laying out a general view of the president’s pandemic-related powers: “I think the federal government does have the power to step in where a state is impairing interstate commerce,” he said, “where they’re intruding on civil liberties, or where Congress under the commerce clause — or some other power Congress has — has given the president under emergency authorities that essentially pre-empt the states in a particular area, if he chooses to use them.” The answer sounded so dry and routine that I failed to ask what he meant by “other power.” Construed broadly enough, Barr’s interpretation could sanitize and legalize Trump’s claim to “total” authority.
Mail-in ballots are another domain where Trump had been staking out turf. He called the distribution of ballot applications in Michigan “illegal” and warned that voting by mail “doesn’t work out well for Republicans.” In a second interview on May 20, when I asked who was going to referee the 2020 election, Barr replied, “The voters.” He said his department’s role would be limited, as the power belongs to the states and their electors. But when I brought up Trump’s tweet about Michigan, which he posted that same morning, Barr quickly seized the opportunity to float a new theory: that foreign governments might conspire to mail in fake ballots.
“I haven’t looked into that,” he cautioned, offering no evidence to substantiate that this was a real possibility. But he called it “one of the issues that I’m real worried about,” and added: “We’ve been talking about how, in terms of foreign influence, there are a number of foreign countries that could easily make counterfeit ballots, put names on them, send them in. And it’d be very hard to sort out what’s happening.”
On many election-related issues, the Department of Justice has to defer to the states. But in the case of Durham’s investigation of the 2016 investigators, or the “witch hunt,” as Trump has so often called it, Barr has a greater degree of control. For years, Trump has been saying that he was treated unfairly in 2016, particularly at the hands of James Comey, then the F.B.I. director. Barr, who is open about his agreement with this premise, is now in the process of nailing down the details. He won’t rule out the possibility that Durham’s findings could undermine a key consensus about 2016, the well-established conclusion that Russian interference sought to favor Trump — a finding of the Intelligence Community Assessment of 2017 that was later underscored by Mueller, the special counsel, and verified by the Republican-controlled Senate intelligence committee.
Durham, Barr told me, was looking for “who should be held accountable for this, and … .” He paused, glanced down and fidgeted for a moment with his necktie before going on. “As I’ve said publicly, I think Comey has cast himself as being seven layers above the decision-making. I don’t think that holds water. The record will be clear that that’s not the case.”
Barr seems aware at times that he is gambling with his reputation. “Everyone dies,” he said with a matter-of-fact sigh in a TV interview last year. “I don’t believe in the Homeric idea that, you know, immortality comes by, you know, having odes sung about you over the centuries.” When we spoke in his office, he was critical of what he called Comey’s tendency to “wrap the institution” around himself. “I don’t say, ‘Gee, if you criticize me, you’re attacking the men and women of the department.’” he said. “B.S.,” he added. “I’ll live or die by my decisions.”
Barr’s willingness to weather controversy on the president’s behalf has not only caused consternation among some former friends and allies; it has given rise to considerable speculation about his motives. Why would a grandfather in semiretirement, who had already reached the pinnacle of his profession, sign up for this? Some wonder if Barr might still be hungry for influence, having been attorney general for only 17 months the first time. Others wonder whether he spent too much time watching Fox News during the Obama years and came out the other side an ideologue. And there are others who look at Barr’s support for Trump and see more consistency than contradiction. Barr, they say, hasn’t changed his values. Rather, he has found in Trump the perfect vehicle with which to move them forward.
“Those who think he’s a tool of Donald Trump are missing the point,” says Stuart Gerson, who led the Justice Department’s civil division during Barr’s first tour and then succeeded him, serving as acting attorney general during the first three months of Bill Clinton’s presidency. “If anything, it’s the other way around. Barr is vastly more intelligent than Donald Trump. What Trump gives Bill Barr is a canvas upon which to paint. Bill has longstanding views about how society should be organized, which can now be manifested and acted upon to a degree that they never could have before.”
As far as what Barr is hoping to do with his canvas, Gerson says he is committed to the “hierarchical” and “authoritarian” premise that “a top-down ordering of society will produce a more moral society.” That isn’t too far away from what Barr himself articulated in a 2019 speech at the University of Notre Dame. In Barr’s view, piety lay at the heart of the founders’ model of self-government, which depended on religious values to restrain human passions. “The founding generation were Christians,” Barr said. Goodness flows from “a transcendent Supreme Being” through “individual morality” to form “the social order.” Reason and experience merely serve to confirm the infallible divine law. That law, he said, is under threat from “militant secularists,” including “so-called progressives,” who call on the state “to mitigate the social costs of personal misconduct and irresponsibility.” At their feet, Barr places mental illness, drug overdoses, violence and suicide. All these things, he said, are getting worse. All are “the bitter results of the new secular age.”
Barr started his career in the C.I.A. as an analyst, working on China and other matters. When I asked about the origin of his interest in the intelligence service, he responded indirectly, with an anecdote about telling his high school guidance counselor that he wanted to be C.I.A. director. It was tempting to link Barr’s career and conservatism with his father, Donald Barr, who served in the Office of Strategic Services, the C.I.A.’s forerunner, during World War II. In 1940, as an undergraduate at Columbia, Donald wrote a controversial editorial for The Columbia Review, defending a speech by the university president that called upon the faculty to support the American war effort. “Most liberals,” he wrote, “do not think precisely.” As tempting as it was to see the son as part of some epigenetic chain of old-line conservatism, Barr cautioned me not to make such assumptions. “My father was like: ‘Do what you want to do. Do what you enjoy. Do something that you’re really interested in, because that’s what you’ll do best in.’”
Barr’s parents met at the University of Missouri in the early 1940s. Donald, who already spoke three languages, had been sent there by the Army to learn Italian. He spotted Mary Ahern, a young Irish-Catholic woman who had a master’s degree in English from Yale, through an open doorway, teaching Shakespeare to undergraduates, and was smitten. Ahern took some courting. She thought Donald was a “New York wolf,” Barr told me, and his background was also an issue; he was raised without much religion, but his father, William’s grandfather, was born a secular Jew. Upon joining the Army, Donald gave his religion as Dutch Reformed. He converted to Catholicism after he and Mary wed.
Donald Barr’s 26-page O.S.S. file, obtained from the National Archives, gives a detailed account of his transition from the military to intelligence work. In 1944, he shipped off to Europe. He suffered from hay fever and 20/200 vision; much of his time overseas was spent hospitalized with allergies. The next year, he was assigned to the O.S.S. His interviewer found him to be “a quiet, unassuming person … matured beyond his age.” In late 1945, he moved to Washington to begin work at the Interim Research and Intelligence Service, which would become the State Department’s in-house intelligence bureau.
William, the couple’s second son, was born in 1950. By age 8, he had taken up the bagpipes, which would become a lifelong hobby. He attended the Horace Mann School in New York, where his classmates remembered his conservatism, the delight he took in making an argument and his sense of humor. The yearbook praised him as an “incomparable master of facial contortions.”
Barr’s involvement with campus politics continued at Columbia. He joined the Majority Coalition, which organized against student occupiers who had taken over the campus to protest the Vietnam War. Columbia was known as a feeder school for the C.I.A. An average of 14 seniors went to the agency each year from 1960 through 1966, according to a 1967 article from the student newspaper, The Daily Spectator, which reported that a majority came in not through the college’s Office of Career Planning and Placement but “through interviews with various affiliated groups” — perhaps a reference to the private foundations and student organizations that were receiving C.I.A. funding at that time.
In the late 1960s, this recruiting drew campus protests, which eventually broadened to take on other issues beyond the war. On the morning of April 24, 1968, student demonstrators, many of them affiliated with Students for a Democratic Society, stormed Low Memorial Library and took over the offices of Columbia’s president. The protesters were angry that Columbia was building a gymnasium nearby that would have two separate entrances — one for the school community and one for neighborhood residents — and also about the university’s connection with a think tank that did research for the Pentagon.
Barr was on the other side, standing shoulder to shoulder with conservatives and athletes to form a blockade around the library. “We interposed ourselves around them,” he told me. “There was a group of S.D.S. students and younger people from Harlem that assembled and tried to break through. And so there was a huge fistfight. Over a dozen people went to the hospital, between the two groups, when they tried to rush through.” He smiled to himself. “They didn’t get through.”
I asked if he was in the fistfight. He adjusted the bridge of his glasses and glanced down. “I was in the fistfight,” he said, letting out a big laugh. “I was lucky. I had big guys around me. I had the football team around me!” He later added, “I picked my opponents carefully.”
Barr interned at the C.I.A. in the summers of 1971 and 1972. In 1973, after completing his graduate degree in government and Chinese studies, he married Christine Moynihan, whom he met at a fraternity party. The next day, the couple drove to Washington, and Barr began a permanent job at the C.I.A. the day after that. His mother’s memories of the Great Depression, he said, had instilled in him a desire for career stability, so he began taking law courses at night. By then, he had transferred to the C.I.A.’s Office of Legislative Counsel. “He was the ultimate straight arrow,” says John Rizzo, who worked down the hall from Barr in the general counsel’s office, where Rizzo would eventually rise to become the acting head. “Very serious. He was a nose-to-the-grindstone guy.”
The new job put Barr on the C.I.A.’s seventh floor, not far from the director’s office and near the center of what was shaping up to be a historic fight with Congress. In the aftermath of World War II, the presidency was endowed with vast new powers — mass surveillance, covert operations, proxy wars and nuclear weapons. The young C.I.A., spurred on by the imperative to win the Cold War, abused its own new powers to an astonishing degree. Despite a statutory ban on its involvement in either “police” or “internal-security functions,” the C.I.A. surveilled and surreptitiously engaged with countless American citizens. The agency reported to the president and often took action based on informal conversations, without ever committing much to paper. Secrecy around the agency’s transgressions held until the 1970s, when antiwar sentiment began to peak. The scandals around the Pentagon Papers (1971) and the Watergate break-in (1972), culminating in the long-anticipated Vietnam defeat, convinced much of the public that the federal government should no longer be given the benefit of the doubt. In 1973, Richard Helms, the longtime C.I.A. director, ordered the destruction of internal C.I.A. documents regarding MK-Ultra, an experimental mind-control program. “The program was over,” Helms later recalled. “We thought we would just get rid of the files as well, so anybody who had assisted us in the past would not be subject to follow-up, or questions, embarrassment, if you will. … We kept faith with the people who had helped us, and I see nothing wrong with that.”
In 1974, the journalist Seymour Hersh, who had already broken the story of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, revealed that the C.I.A. had developed a sprawling domestic-spying operation, keeping dossiers on thousands of American citizens. Congress created two special committees — a Senate committee, led by Senator Frank Church, and a House committee that would eventually be led by Representative Otis Pike — to investigate. For years, the C.I.A. would be consumed with negotiations over the limits of what Congress could oversee.
“We had, like, seven different committees investigating, and the Pike commission,” Barr told me in his office. “This was for excesses during the Cold War.”
I asked if there had indeed been excesses. Barr’s poker face came to life. He grinned, turned his palms out and shrugged. “Some,” he said. He burst out laughing. Then he pulled back to give the matter some more thought, adjusting his glasses as he settled back into seriousness.
“I don’t want to be quoted as saying they were not excessive,” he said. “There were some that clearly were excessive.”
The battle between conservative hard-liners and a Democratic-led Congress would continue through the late Cold War. Inside the C.I.A., there was a sense of victimization. “The Church Committee period was a horror for the agency,” Frederick Hitz, the agency’s first presidentially appointed inspector general, told me. “We got batted around.”
In 1976, the job of defending the agency in public passed to the new director, George H.W. Bush, who had served as a special U.S. envoy to China. On at least one occasion, Barr sat behind Bush during a congressional hearing, giving him legal advice. Congress wound up making oversight a permanent thorn in the C.I.A.’s side by establishing two intelligence oversight committees. That May, Barr drafted two letters, each signed by Bush, asking Congress if the C.I.A. could resume the routine destruction of documents. The request was denied.
“The culture of the agency was passive resistance,” says Michael Glennon, now a law professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, who dealt with the C.I.A. as legal counsel of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “You’re never talking to the right person. You never had exactly the right document. They had a dozen different bureaucratic obstacles in their arsenal, and they used every one of them.”
Rather than accept post-Watergate congressional limitations, the hard-liners decamped from the C.I.A. and became floaters, bureaucratic nomads who sought out underused and low-visibility pockets of the federal government from which to wage their war over executive power. The largest battle was fought around the Iran-contra affair. A covert group operating out of the Reagan White House had used money gained by selling arms to Iran to fund anti-Communist rebels in Central America, flouting a congressional prohibition. Much of the operation was organized by Lt. Col. Oliver North of the National Security Council. Many of the Iran-contra plotters were dragged into the public eye and indicted by a special prosecutor, another post-Watergate innovation. Evidence pointing to the involvement of President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George H.W. Bush was inconclusive. The hard-liners felt that foreign policy and covert operations were an exclusively presidential domain. “The business of Congress is to stay the [expletive] out of my business” is how Reagan’s first C.I.A. director, William Casey, put it in an interview with the political scientist Loch K. Johnson.
Around this time, conservative thinkers of Barr’s generation began to coalesce around an idea they called “the unitary executive.” The president’s right to his powers under Article II of the Constitution, they argued, was undivided and absolute. Post-Watergate reforms — independent prosecutors to investigate high-level wrongdoing, requirements to get warrants for national-security wiretaps, and more — were unconstitutional incursions into the president’s rightful powers.
In June 1977, Barr left the C.I.A. upon his graduation from George Washington University Law School, eventually landing as a policy lawyer in the Reagan White House. Bush, running for president, took Barr to the 1988 Republican National Convention to help vet potential running mates and, after winning the election, appointed him to lead the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, where his duties included determining the legal limits of C.I.A. activities. Rizzo, who was still at the C.I.A., recalls that Barr kept his independence from the Oval Office. Two of Barr’s opinions on classified C.I.A. operations “didn’t give the White House and C.I.A. everything that they wanted,” while a third operation, Rizzo says, was rejected entirely. One of Barr’s public opinions, though, effectively authorized the invasion of Panama. Later, as acting attorney general, he impressed Bush further by defusing a delicate prison-hostage crisis. As attorney general in 1992, Barr signed off on a mass-surveillance program that collected billions of call records for the Drug Enforcement Administration. At the end of Bush’s presidency, he successfully pushed for a pardon of six Iran-contra defendants.
Gen. Michael V. Hayden, a former C.I.A. director, says Barr reminds him of David Addington — the former C.I.A. lawyer who became Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff and played a major role in pushing the limits of conduct, including torture, that the White House and the C.I.A. determined to be legal in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. Barr “wants the president to be in charge,” Hayden says. “People who believe that if the president wants it, most times he gets it and it’s legal — those people usually go far in the White House.”
Barr’s intellect and experience made him appealing to the private sector. For eight years, he served as general counsel at Verizon, at a time when the company was working out secret arrangements with the National Security Agency to turn over its customers’ data. In September 2001, a legal trade publication noted Barr’s $1.5 million salary and compared him to a “powerful amphibious vehicle” for the depth of his connections in both political Washington and corporate New York. At that time, he said, he had no interest in returning to officialdom. “The opportunity to pick up the phone and talk to policymakers, to kibitz — without worrying about what the newspaper is going to say the next day about you — is a great luxury,” he said. “I have the best of all worlds.”
By the 2016 presidential election, Barr was a player in Republican politics and active in conservative Catholic causes. He gave nearly $50,000 to a PAC affiliated with Jeb Bush. His annual holiday parties, traditional Scottish cèilidhs with music and singers, drew hundreds whose friendships he had maintained over the years. He wrote and sold a screenplay about World War II. He spent time traveling abroad and hunting birds. His three daughters all became accomplished lawyers, working on Capitol Hill or as federal prosecutors. The eldest, Mary, moved to the Treasury Department’s financial-crimes unit after Barr’s nomination as attorney general; one of Barr’s sons-in-law left the Justice Department for the White House Counsel’s Office.
Last year, shortly after his Notre Dame speech, Barr gave a second major address at the annual convention of the Federalist Society, an organization of conservative lawyers founded during the Reagan administration. The subject was executive power. Again Barr criticized progressives, this time for making politics “their religion.” The presidency, in his view, handled “sovereign functions … which by their very nature cannot be directed by a pre-existing legal regime but rather demand speed, secrecy, unity of purpose and prudent judgment to meet contingent circumstances.” Part of the core function of the presidency was the ability to act swiftly and without constraint, but this capability had been diminished by the other branches since Watergate. Congress had burdened the president with oversight, while the courts were interfering with Trump’s travel ban on certain countries and his termination of President Barack Obama’s DACA program for young immigrants. Barr seemed to suggest that when it comes to foreign policy, the only legitimate check on presidential behavior is the next election. Months later, this argument would become the foundation of Trump’s impeachment defense.
On Dec. 5, 2018, Barr attended George H.W. Bush’s funeral. While waiting in line for the shuttle bus that would take him to Washington National Cathedral, he and his wife ran into a friend, C. Boyden Gray, who was Bush’s White House counsel during the Reagan years. The two men spent most of the day together. Barr sounded out Gray about the attorney-general job. Gray knew from following the news that Barr was under consideration, but Barr never tipped his hand about how close he was to being tapped, and Gray never asked. Later that week, when Trump announced Barr’s nomination, Gray was not surprised. “I don’t think he felt totally fulfilled by the limited time he had” under Bush, Gray says. “I think he felt he had another round left in him.”
At the time of his nomination, Barr’s supporters presented him as a trustworthy and sensible conservative, a known quantity within the Washington establishment who would restrain Trump’s worst impulses. James Comey called him “an institutionalist who cares deeply about the integrity of the Justice Department.” Benjamin Wittes, a legal commentator who is now one of Barr’s harshest critics, tweeted at the time that he had been “a very fine A.G.” under Bush and that his confirmation would be “a very decent outcome.”
During the confirmation hearing, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, questioned Barr at length about a memorandum he wrote to the administration the previous summer, outlining why he believed that Mueller had no legal right to investigate Trump for obstruction of justice. The president, Barr argued, has “complete authority to start or stop” investigations and can “give direction” on individual cases, including those that touch on his political or financial interests. “The Constitution itself places no limit on the president’s authority to act on matters which concern him or his own conduct,” Barr wrote. Law enforcement, he argued, was a power exclusively held by the president, because “he alone is the executive branch.”
In the hearing, Barr seemed to say that he did not believe the unitary executive’s powers to be infinite. When Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, asked if it would be lawful for a president to trade a pardon for a promise not to incriminate him, Barr answered that such an exchange would be a crime. He also mentioned his long friendship with Mueller. Barr’s wife attends the same Bible study as Mueller’s wife; Mueller attended the weddings of two of Barr’s daughters.
Barr was confirmed by a vote of 54 to 45. He had barely served one month as attorney general when his friendship with Mueller was tested by the special prosecutor’s delivery of his report, on the afternoon of Friday, March 22. Trump’s Twitter account then went dark for nearly 40 hours. That Sunday, Barr sent a letter to Congress that he would later describe as giving Mueller’s “bottom line,” and Trump’s feed came back to life. “No Collusion, No Obstruction, Complete and Total EXONERATION,” he tweeted. In his first public comments that same day, Trump said the words “no collusion with Russia” three times. “Hopefully someone is going to be looking at the other side,” he added.
Trump’s tweet, Barr’s letter and Mueller’s report said three different things. Neither Barr nor Mueller exonerated Trump. Barr quoted Mueller’s own words that his complicated finding on obstruction “does not exonerate” the president. But Barr omitted Mueller’s conclusions that Russian interference sought to favor Trump; that Trump and his campaign welcomed the interference and believed they would benefit from it; and that the “links” and “contacts” between Russians and the campaign were substantial, even though the evidence Mueller was able to gather fell short of a criminal conspiracy.
Mueller fired off two letters complaining that Barr had misrepresented his work. In the second letter, dated March 27, he asked Barr to immediately release the report’s introductions and executive summaries. But the public would not get to read Mueller’s work until April 18, when Barr released a redacted version of the full report. Before doing so, Barr gave a news conference in which he tilted further toward declaring Trump innocent, something Mueller bent over backward not to do. “As he said from the beginning,” Barr said of Trump, “there was in fact no collusion.”
Barr’s distortions drew wide criticism. Democrats were also frustrated by the report’s content. It lacked the thunderous revelations about Russia that had long been promised by Trump’s opponents, and it suffered from legalistic inconclusiveness on the most fundamental questions. Mueller, having been given a chance to put the 2016 election to bed for good, had carefully avoided doing so.
Democrats’ hopes for the promised collusion bombshell now turned to the unredacted version of the Mueller report, which Barr refused to give them. In an echo of his C.I.A. work during the Church Commission years, the Barr-led Justice Department has taken a very hard line regarding what information Congress and the courts are entitled to get from the White House. It has fought in court against the release of Trump’s tax returns; argued that Congress did not need to see the Ukraine whistle-blower’s complaint, because it was not a matter of “urgent concern”; and has challenged congressional requests for Mueller’s secret grand-jury materials.
After Barr refused to turn over the fully unredacted Mueller report to the House Judiciary Committee, citing executive privilege, the committee voted to hold him in contempt. The Democratic chairman, Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, claimed that this was the beginning of a “constitutional crisis.” Barr seemed untroubled. “Madam Speaker, did you bring your handcuffs?” he reportedly quipped to Nancy Pelosi at an event a few days later. But concerns about Barr’s handling of Mueller’s investigation have not been confined to Democrats. Judge Reggie B. Walton of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, a George W. Bush appointee, recently criticized Barr’s “lack of candor” and questioned whether “Barr’s intent was to create a one-sided narrative.”
At his first meeting with President Trump in 2017, Barr later recalled in his confirmation hearing, he told Trump that “the Barrs and Muellers were good friends and would be good friends when this was all over.” In the end, he was half right. “I haven’t talked to him since March 5, when he came over to talk about his report,” Barr said in one of our interviews. That would have been March 2019 — more than a year ago.
“My wife and his wife still talk, and they’re friends,” Barr continued. I asked if they still saw each other at Bible study. “Yup,” Barr replied.
Attorneys general are chosen by the president; no law prohibits them from doing the president’s bidding. Many presidents have occasionally asked the attorney general to intervene in individual prosecutions. John Mitchell, President Richard M. Nixon’s attorney general, went much further, helping to plan the Watergate burglary and then working to cover it up. But the Justice Department’s guidelines do enjoin prosecutors not to comment about ongoing investigations, something Barr does regularly. They also caution that legal judgments “must be impartial and insulated from political influence” and that the department must respect Congress’s “legitimate investigatory and oversight functions.”
None of this has stopped Barr from overruling his subordinates to the benefit of Trump’s friends and associates — most notably Roger Stone, Trump’s longtime political mentor, and Michael Flynn, his former national security adviser. In both cases, Trump has tweeted about what he sees as the unfairness of their legal troubles, and the Justice Department has subsequently pushed for leniency.
Barr has repeatedly said that Trump has never asked him to do anything in a criminal case: “I’m not going to be bullied or influenced by anybody,” he said in an interview with ABC News. But the department’s interventions on behalf of Stone and Flynn have raised questions about the supposed Trump-Barr firewall. “Even assuming that Bill Barr is acting with integrity, it is impossible for people to believe that, because the president is making him look like his political lap dog,” Jack Goldsmith, who led the Office of Legal Counsel under George W. Bush, told The Times in February. Barr has said he doesn’t pay attention to Trump’s tweets and doesn’t take seriously the ones he is made aware of. “The president says a lot of things which he doesn’t follow through on, and doesn’t actually mean, probably,” says Gray, Barr’s friend and former colleague.
Vanita Gupta, the former head of Obama’s civil rights division at the department, articulated a prevailing view of Barr among Democrats, telling me that the attorney general has “since Day 1 operated as the president’s defense lawyer.” Gupta says Barr’s interventions on behalf of Trump associates have far-reaching consequences. “Barr is overturning decisions made by career prosecutors to placate the president,” she says. “It’s insulting to federal prosecutors who have given their time to build cases with honor and integrity. It has a destructive impact on morale.”
In February, prosecutors recommended that Stone be sentenced to seven to nine years in prison for witness tampering and other crimes. The following day, the Justice Department filed a second, revised sentencing memo asking that Stone’s sentence be reduced. Eighty-seven to 108 months, the memo argued, “could be considered excessive” given Stone’s “advanced age, health, personal circumstances and lack of criminal history.”
On the same day the department revised its sentencing recommendation, all four of the prosecutors responsible for the case announced their withdrawal. One, Jonathan Kravis, left the department entirely. “I am convinced that the department’s conduct in the Stone and Flynn cases will do lasting damage to the institution,” Kravis wrote later in an op-ed in The Washington Post.
On Twitter, Trump said the Stone prosecutors “cut and ran after being exposed.” He tweeted out congratulations to Barr for “taking charge of a case that was totally out of control.” Barr pushed back in the ABC interview, insisting that he reached the Stone decision independently. “To have public statements and tweets made about the department, about our people in the department, our men and women here, about cases pending in the department and about judges before whom we have cases make it impossible for me to do my job and to assure the courts and the prosecutors that we’re doing our work with integrity,” he said, adding, “I think it’s time to stop the tweeting about Department of Justice criminal cases.”
The post-Mueller case that has arguably received the most attention among Trump’s supporters is that of Flynn, the lieutenant general who briefly served as Trump’s national security adviser. The dueling narratives around the Obama-to-Trump transition crystallize around Flynn, and the question of whether he or those who investigated him were in the wrong. In addition to drawing scrutiny for his Russian contacts, Flynn initially failed to report, as legally required, that his company was effectively on the payroll of the Turkish government during the 2016 campaign. Obama himself tried and failed to talk Trump into dropping him. Many of Trump’s own problems hinged on his asking Comey if he could “see your way clear” to dropping the Flynn investigation. Trump’s adversaries consider Flynn to be a loose cannon and possible Russian pawn who needed to be rooted out. His supporters depict him as the second coming of Oliver North — a good soldier who was martyred in public for his loyalty to the executive.
On May 4, the day of my first interview with Barr, Flynn was still awaiting sentencing, having pleaded guilty to lying to the F.B.I. From time to time, Trump had been tweeting about the Flynn case in ways that seemed to cross the line that Barr had drawn about public comments from the White House about matters pending before the Justice Department. Trump said Flynn had been victimized by the “same scammers” as Stone.
I asked Barr, in light of his statement on ABC News, whether these were the kind of tweets that made his job “impossible.”
“I’ve already made my position on the tweets clear,” Barr said. “I don’t have anything further to say about it.”
Trump had recently been tweeting about Flynn, I said. “I haven’t seen any of his tweets about Flynn, so I’m not sure what he’s saying,” Barr replied.
I asked if he would like to see them. “Not particularly,” Barr said. “I don’t pay any attention. I don’t even know what he tweets.”
I handed Barr a printout of an April 29 Trump tweet. It read:
@CNN doesn’t want to speak about their persecution of General Michael Flynn & why they got the story so wrong. They, along with others, should pay a big price for what they have purposely done to this man & his family. They won’t even cover the big breaking news about this scam!
“Take it for what you will,” Barr said with cool indifference. “The thing that I reacted to with Stone, was him [Trump] saying what the department should do.”
I asked how it was that Flynn’s supposed antagonists could be punished — “pay a big price” — without involvement from the department.
“That doesn’t have to do with the Flynn matter, does it?” Barr asked, referring to the particular case that was now before Judge Emmet Sullivan. He had found the right hair to split, and he split it so cleanly and decisively that I couldn’t say this wasn’t his position from the beginning.
The tweet, Barr said, was nothing new. Trump, he said, “has been calling for justice and for holding people to account since the very beginning.”
Three days later, on the afternoon of May 7, the Justice Department filed a motion to dismiss its own prosecution of Flynn. The government argued that Flynn’s false statements were not “material” to the investigation of Flynn, because the investigation was itself unjustified. The argument relied in part on the contents of handwritten F.B.I. notes that had been turned over to Flynn’s attorneys by the department and released to the public by mutual agreement. One of the prosecutors assigned to the case immediately withdrew.
A few days later, Sullivan decided he wouldn’t rule on whether to accept the department’s motion until he had heard from friends of the court and a special counsel. Flynn’s lawyers appealed, asking a higher court to force the judge’s hand. Again, the department took Flynn’s side. Trump took to Twitter, celebrating “a BIG day for Justice in the USA. … I do believe there is MUCH more to come!”
The definitive Sept. 11 Commission-style history of the 2016 election remains unwritten, though not for lack of trying. In addition to the Mueller report and voluminous criminal indictments, we have the Intelligence Community Assessment, the Horowitz report (by the Justice Department’s inspector general, Michael Horowitz) and four volumes of the Senate intelligence committee’s report, a fifth volume of which is on the way.
The major episodes of the story may now seem like familiar terrain to those who have kept up, and a hopeless mess to everyone else. But zoom out a bit, and the stakes could not be higher. Many of Trump’s critics, like Representative Adam Schiff of California, the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and James Clapper, Obama’s director of national intelligence, go further than saying that the Russians put a thumb on the scale for Trump. They have suggested that the extra boost was decisive — that Trump would not have been elected in 2016 but for Russian interference. The crucial legacy of 2016 is that the question of Trump’s legitimacy was never settled. And without any consensus on what happened in 2016, the rules of the road for 2020 are up in the air.
But first, armed with the powers of law enforcement and presidential access to classified material, Trump is getting ready to roll out his account of 2016. When Trump promises “much more to come,” he most likely has in mind the ongoing investigation by John Durham and its long-expected report — although it is also possible that Durham’s public work product will take the form of indictments, or perhaps nothing at all. Barr, who assigned Durham the task of investigating the Russia probe in May last year and met with him several times immediately after the conclusion of Mueller’s investigation, is overseeing Durham’s work and briefs Trump on his findings regularly. Based on Barr’s public statements, we can see the rough contours of Durham’s findings beginning to take shape. The government’s conduct during the Obama-to-Trump transition, Barr has said, was “abhorrent.” Surveillance of Trump’s campaign amounted to “spying.” Then there was the all-important question of whether the F.B.I. was justified in opening the initial Crossfire Hurricane investigation into the Trump campaign’s Russia ties.
Under ordinary circumstances, Justice Department prosecutors do not comment on anything connected to an ongoing investigation, but on the day that Horowitz released his report, both Barr and Durham decided to do just that. The F.B.I.’s interest in Trump, Barr said, was based “on the thinnest of suspicions” and “insufficient to justify the steps taken.” “We do not agree with some of the report’s conclusions as to predication,” Durham said in his own statement. Horowitz had found that the investigation was justified, so these sounded like sweeping words of dissent. But over the coming months, as attention drifted elsewhere, they shrank. By the time I sat down with Barr, the only dispute with Horowitz he’d voiced was whether the F.B.I. had enough evidence to open a full investigation. (Barr and Durham believe that there was only enough to open a preliminary investigation, not a full one.)
In our first interview, Barr mentioned the dossier of salacious anti-Trump claims that had been gathered and circulated by Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence agent who was working indirectly for the Clinton campaign. The possibility that the Russian government intentionally seeded the dossier with misinformation was one of the issues Mueller ignored and Durham was looking at, Barr said. Nor had Mueller gone back and looked at the investigative steps taken as Crossfire Hurricane accelerated, he continued. Horowitz had done that, but unlike Barr and Durham, he had no access to the C.I.A., the N.S.A. and the foreign governments that were involved.
To facilitate what later became a criminal investigation, Trump ordered the heads of the intelligence agencies to cooperate with Barr. He delegated to Barr the power to order the declassification of secret documents. Barr has spoken with intelligence officials from Italy, Australia and Britain to reportedly solicit information that could help Durham. In the case of Italy, where Barr and Durham met with political leaders and intelligence chiefs in person, his visit provoked concern among U.S. diplomats, who told The Times that Barr circumvented protocols in setting up the trip. Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, who is the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee and helped write its five-volume report, said there were “concerns” about Barr’s trips. “There is queasiness among our allies about the kind of activities Barr is engaged in,” he said.
Timothy Flanigan, a former colleague of Barr’s from the George H.W. Bush years, said he thought Durham could come back with something more. Mueller’s investigation “was limited to the president and the campaign,” he told me. “No one has looked at the whole intelligence community and asked, ‘Was there something amiss here?’”
Durham’s investigation is not the only means through which Barr’s decisions could affect the election. If the F.B.I. wants to open a criminal investigation into either campaign, it will first need Barr’s personal approval. Barr has established a special “intake process” to deal with materials that Rudolph W. Giuliani says he has obtained from Ukrainian sources, which, Giuliani has claimed, implicate Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. In the interview, Barr did not dispute the notion that the Russian government had interfered in 2016, but he made it sound as though the assumption that it favored Trump would be coming under some pressure.
One also would expect Barr to play a role in deterring and punishing foreign interference in the 2020 election, but that could get complicated. Trump’s camp continues to deny the intelligence community’s consensus view, one strongly reiterated by Mueller and the Senate intelligence committee, that the Russians favored Trump over Hillary Clinton. Some, including Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee, claim to have unreleased evidence that points the other way. Based on what Barr told me, Russian intentions will most likely emerge as the key retrospective battlegrounds as Durham’s work continues and the election draws closer.
“There was definitely Russian, uh, interference,” Barr said. “I think Durham is looking at the intelligence community’s I.C.A. — the report that they did in December. And he’s sort of examining all the information that was based on, the basis for their conclusions. So to that extent, I still have an open mind, depending on what he finds.”
But what Barr did not address directly was the fourth volume of the report from the Senate intelligence committee. That report reviewed much of the same intelligence underlying the Intelligence Community Assessment. It affirmed that Russia’s pro-Trump position and President Vladimir V. Putin’s direct involvement were supported by “specific intelligence.” The N.S.A.’s disagreement was “reasonable, transparent and openly debated.” Unlike the committee’s groundbreaking 2012 Torture Report, the fourth volume was unanimously approved by a bipartisan vote of the Republican-led committee. “The committee found no reason to dispute the intelligence community’s conclusions,” said Senator Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina and the chairman of the committee.
Warner, for his part, dismissed Durham’s investigation as “a fishing expedition,” he told me. “I will be very surprised if Durham finds anything new.”
I brought up the Durham investigation again in my last interview with Barr, on May 20. The fifth floor of Justice Department headquarters now felt different; some older, lawyerly looking men walking around wore masks. Two younger men in suits with lapel pins, who were most likely security, did not. Barr himself still wore no mask, but there were no more polite entreaties for visitors to take theirs off. One could see two crumpled blue surgical masks lying amid the papers on Barr’s desk. With disarming familiarity, Barr sat down on a sofa and offered me my “usual place” in a tufted leather chair.
By then, Trump had seized on the “Obamagate” meme, accusing the former president and Biden of “the biggest political crime in American history.” When asked what crime he thought they were guilty of, Trump declined to answer. In a news conference two days before I went to see him, Barr was asked indirectly if Durham’s investigation might lead to criminal charges being filed against Obama or Biden. “I have a general idea of how Mr. Durham’s investigation is going,” he said. “Based on the information I have today, I don’t expect Mr. Durham’s work will lead to a criminal investigation of either man. Our concern about potential criminality was focused on others.”
Later that same day, Trump, asked about Barr’s statement, replied, “I’m a little surprised.” He went on: “I don’t think he said it quite the way you said it. I think he said ‘as of this moment,’ I guess. But if it was me, I guarantee that they’d be going after me.” Trump then said he had “no doubt” that Obama and Biden were “involved” in what he now called a “scandal.” As to whether or not it was criminal, he said, “I would think it would be very serious — very, very serious. It was a takedown … and in my opinion, it was an illegal takedown.”
In Barr’s office two days later, I brought up how Trump seemed to have heard only what he wanted to hear, that Barr’s prediction about not prosecuting the former president was only valid “as of this moment.”
Barr said I shouldn’t read too much into those words.
“I was just qualifying it simply as any lawyer would qualify an absolute statement,” he said. “I have nothing in mind like that.”
Whether he realized it or not, the line Barr had drawn at the news conference was getting blurrier with every word, just as Trump had hoped.
“You never say never,” Barr went on. “Things could pop up that change the world.” He pulled back from the conversation and thought for a moment. “But I have a pretty good grasp of what went down and what was happening, and I don’t expect that.”
After keeping tabs on Durham’s investigation for more than a year, Barr did not think it was likely that he would have to prosecute a former president. But neither, at that moment, was he willing to rule it out. He made this position sound reasonable, even as it served to support the unsupported “Obamagate” theory that the president was floating at the time.
In the end, the substance of Durham’s findings might not matter. Whatever he turns up will become a major theme of Trump’s 2020 campaign; the less time there is before an election, the greater political impact of even the smallest apparent revelation. All Trump needed from Barr was the glimmer of a possibility, a slight shadow of official uncertainty in which his wild theories could flourish. And for now, Barr was giving him that. How much more he would give the president before November, it was hard to say.
A Brexit ultra and profound reactionary, the eccentric MP is a strong contender to be the next prime minister. How dangerous is he?
Jacob Rees-Mogg calls it “God’s own country” – that swathe of rural Somerset south of Bath and Bristol where he was raised, and that he now represents in parliament. It is easy to see why the Tory backbencher, who conceivably could become prime minister before too long, loves it so much. When not in his Mayfair town house, or dwelling in some glorious imagined past, he, his wife and their six young children live in Gournay Court, a splendid 400-year-old mansion in the picturesque village of West Harptree at the foot of the Mendip Hills.
A short drive down the Chew River valley in one of his two vintage Bentleys, along narrow lanes flanked by neat hedgerows and pretty stone cottages, takes him back to Hinton Blewett, where he grew up in the Old Rectory with views across rolling farmland. A few miles beyond that is Ston Easton Park, an imposing Georgian pile with landscaped grounds that is now a luxury hotel. There, young Jacob – fourth of the five children of William Rees-Mogg, the distinguished former editor of the Times – spent the earliest years of his life, and was taught the Catholic catechism by his governess.
This is the storybook England of great estates, farms and elegant villages clustered around ancient, steepled churches. Here, the young Rees-Mogg was marinated from birth in English history and tradition. And now, aged 48, he would doubtless consider himself the embodiment of traditional English values.
He has never been seen (except perhaps by his wife) in anything other than a suit and tie. He speaks in sonorous Edwardian English and is unfailingly courteous. To be born British, he says, is “to win first prize in the lottery of life”. Not long ago he asked the House of Commons: “What greater pleasure can there be for a true-born Englishman [than] to listen to our national anthem… to listen to those words that link us to our sovereign who is part of that chain that takes us back to our immemorial history.” The Economist recently described him as “the blue passport in human form, the red telephone box made flesh, the Royal Yacht Britannia in a pinstripe suit”.
But Rees-Mogg’s many foes insist his values are those of a zealot, not those of modern Britain such as moderation, tolerance, inclusivity and compassion for the needy. His critics like him as a person and enjoy his intelligence, humour and self-deprecation, but contend that his old-school charm and civility mask extreme, doctrinaire positions not just on Brexit, but on almost every other social and economic issue including abortion, welfare and climate change. Rees-Mogg certainly has no time for “One Nation” or “compassionate” Conservatism, or for the “modernising” project begun by David Cameron. He unashamedly champions what he calls “full-blooded Toryism”. He has gained a passionate following among young Tories for whom – in an age of technocratic career politicians – the fact he is a character with strong beliefs appears more important than what those beliefs may be. But older, more centrist members of the party are appalled.
“You would only elect him leader of the Conservative Party if you didn’t want to win an election ever again,” one grandee and former cabinet minister told me.
“I couldn’t stay in a party led by somebody like him,” said Anna Soubry, the prominent backbench Remainer, earlier this month. Heidi Allen, another Conservative MP, has said the same, adding: “He’s not the modern face of the Tory party I and colleagues are desperate to prove is out there.”
Matthew Parris, the commentator and former Tory MP, was even blunter in the Times: “For the 21st-century Conservative Party Jacob Rees-Mogg would be pure hemlock. His manners are perfumed but his opinions are poison. Rees-Mogg is quite simply an unfailing, unbending, unrelenting reactionary.”
Rees-Mogg declined the New Statesman’s requests for an interview for this profile, citing a lack of time. However, he did find time last year for an hour-long podcast interview with Breitbart, the ultra-right-wing US website that helped to propel Donald Trump into the White House. Host James Delingpole introduced Rees-Mogg as his “most exciting guest ever” and “the sexiest thing from a right-wing perspective in British politics”. Rees-Mogg, an early supporter of Trump, also found time before Christmas to meet Steve Bannon, the US president’s former chief ideologue, in a Mayfair hotel. Raheem Kassam, the former Ukip luminary who brokered the meeting, said “the discussions focused on how we move forward with winning for the conservative movements on both sides of the pond”.
It may not be his fault, but Rees-Mogg has led a relentlessly privileged life. He spent his early years as a pupil at Westminster Under School, which educates boys aged seven to 13. While there, he played the stock markets using a £50 inheritance from a relative, standing up at the General Electric Company’s annual meeting and castigating a board – that included his father – for the firm’s “pathetic” dividend. A contemporary newspaper photograph showed the precocious 12-year-old solemnly reading the Financial Times beside his teddy bears.
He proceeded, inevitably, to Eton, and from there to Trinity College, Oxford, to read history. An ardent young Thatcherite who had imbibed Euroscepticism at his father’s knee, he became president of the university’s Conservative Association, debated at the Oxford Union, and would nip down to London to help out at Conservative Central Office. He had his own telephone installed in his college room. He incurred mockery for suggesting students should wear a “full morning suit”, and embraced the mortarboard – “I do so like to cycle around Oxford with it on.” One former student who knew him at university called him a “ghastly snob”. After graduating, he worked briefly for the Rothschild investment bank. He then spent three years with Lloyd George Investment in Hong Kong, before returning to London to run some of that firm’s emerging market funds. Surprisingly, since Rees-Mogg so passionately supports the reckless gamble with the British economy that is Brexit, a recent FT investigation described him as a cautious investor whose performance was “less than stellar”.
In 2007, Rees-Mogg and several colleagues left Lloyd George to set up Somerset Capital Management – one source of his estimated £100m personal fortune. Another source is his wife, Helena, the only child of the former Tory MP Somerset de Chair and Lady Juliet Tadgell, an heiress and former Marchioness of Bristol who is said to be worth £45m. Rees-Mogg met Helena while campaigning for a referendum on the EU constitution. He proposed in front of one of the half-dozen Van Dyck paintings that hang in her family’s stately home, Bourne Park in Kent. They were married in 2007 before 650 guests in Canterbury Cathedral, the archbishop having authorised a Tridentine mass in ecclesiastical Latin in light of Rees-Mogg’s fervent Catholicism. The couple now have six children aged between seven months and ten, all bearing the names of Catholic popes and saints. Following the birth of Sixtus last July, Rees-Mogg admitted he had never changed a nappy, adding: “Nanny does it brilliantly.”
The first recorded instance of him mingling at length with common folk came when he was selected, somewhat improbably, as the Conservative candidate for Central Fife in 1997. He toured council estates with the aforementioned nanny, Veronica Crook, in tow (she was his nanny, too, before looking after his children). Something was lost in translation, however, for Rees-Mogg came a distant third, securing just 3,669 votes. “The number of voters in my favour dropped as soon as I opened my mouth,” he said.
Four years later, Rees-Mogg stood again, this time in The Wrekin in Shropshire. He came second with 38 per cent of the vote, down 2 per cent on the Tories’ performance in 1997, despite a small uptick in the party’s national vote. Thereafter, the Kensington and Chelsea Conservatives rejected him for “lacking the common touch”, but he was eventually selected as the Tory candidate in his native North East Somerset, despite opposition from the party leadership. Cameron allegedly felt Rees-Mogg’s exceedingly patrician mien would undermine his efforts to modernise the party. The then Tory leader certainly encouraged Rees-Mogg’s sister, Annunziata, the party’s unsuccessful 2010 candidate in neighbouring Somerset and Frome, to shorten her name on the campaign trail to Nancy Mogg, but she refused.
Jacob Rees-Mogg was elected to parliament in 2010, with a majority of 4,914 that he has since doubled. He and his family spend about three weekends a month in the constituency. He responds to constituents by letter, not email, because – an aide told me – “he thinks people should get their own personally signed reply”. Even his political opponents concede that he is a diligent constituency MP, though they question his ability to understand the less affluent.
“I’ve always found him very polite. He obviously cares about his family,” said Robin Moss, Labour’s candidate in the constituency last year. “But he hasn’t the remotest idea of what it’s like to live on Universal Credit or be homeless. He’s never put his hand in his pocket and realised there’s nothing there.”
At first, Rees-Mogg was regarded in Westminster as a colourful, eccentric and entertaining MP, but hardly leadership material. He broke the record for the longest word uttered in the Commons chamber with “floccinaucinihilipilification” (the action or habit of estimating something as worthless). He called for Somerset to be allowed to set its own time zone, as it could before all British times were harmonised in the 1840s. He suggested council officials wear bowler hats to identify themselves as “thorough-going bureaucrats”. He joined the all-party parliamentary group for historic vehicles. He wore a top hat to Margaret Thatcher’s funeral. In one interview, “the honourable member for the 18th century” struggled to name a single pop group, and he began appearing on Have I Got News for You as some sort of amusing relic from the age of Downton Abbey.
Occasionally, he went too far. In 2013 he addressed a dinner of the Traditional Britain Group, which favoured the voluntary repatriation of black immigrants. That was “clearly a mistake”, he admitted. He also angered his party leadership by supporting an electoral arrangement with Ukip ahead of the 2015 general election.
But it was the 2016 EU referendum that raised his stature from that of a backbench ornament. Rees-Mogg campaigned vigorously for Leave, and has continued to fight for the hardest, purest form of Brexit ever since. In the wake of Theresa May’s insipid general election performance in 2017, he was seized on by young Conservatives desperate for a bold, colourful leader to take on Jeremy Corbyn – and so, the personality cult of “Moggmentum” was launched. (He joined Instagram and Twitter around the same time.) To persuade him to run for leader, two young activists, Anne Sutherland and Sam Frost, set up an online petition – “Ready for Rees-Mogg” – that now has more than 41,000 signatories, making it the biggest right-leaning campaign group in Britain. “We have a bunch of very, very boring people at the top of the Conservative Party, so someone who’s a bit different and not a classic cookie-cutter Tory minister is very exciting,” Frost told me.
Rees-Mogg’s rise continued. In September 2017 he emerged as the most popular potential leader in a monthly poll of more than 1,300 Tory members run by the website ConservativeHome, and has remained top in nearly every survey since. In October, he was the star of the party conference in Manchester, addressing packed fringe meetings while the main hall was half-empty. He has become something of a media celebrity, and gained a valuable new platform in January when he was elected chairman of the European Research Group, a cabal of 30 to 60 ultra-Brexiteer Tory MPs recently described by Peter Wilby in this magazine as “more of a party within a party than [Labour’s] Momentum”.
As the standard-bearer of the “swivel-eyed” brigade, he exerts relentless pressure to prevent May backsliding as she negotiates Britain’s departure from the EU. He speaks out when her red lines “are beginning to look a little bit pink”. He rejects any deal that would turn Britain into a “vassal state” or amount to “Brino” (an acronym for “Brexit in name only”). He objects to the negotiations becoming a “damage limitation exercise”, or to any suggestion that Brussels is dictating to Britain. He wants the UK out of the single market and customs union, even if that means crashing out of the EU without a deal. He is admired by Ukip supporters and is Nigel Farage’s preferred choice as the next Conservative leader.
In much the same way that Trump trashes the FBI to discredit its investigation of his Russian links, Rees-Mogg recently accused the Treasury of “fiddling the figures” to exaggerate the economic damage of Brexit. “He’s theologically opposed to having policy driven by evidence and facts, insisting that anyone who disagrees must be lying or relying on false information,” one former Tory minister complained. But Rees-Mogg has uncompromising views that extend far beyond Brexit. He opposes the 1998 Human Rights Act, gay marriage and all abortion, even in cases of rape and incest – though he insists he would not seek to re-criminalise it. “I take my whip from the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church rather than the Whips’ Office,” he says.
He believes that “you alleviate poverty by trickle-down economics” or what some might call “sink-or-swim”. To that end, according to the website TheyWorkForYou, he has voted against a “mansion tax” on homes costing more than £2m, a bankers’ bonus tax, and tax increases for those earning more than £150,000. He has voted in favour of reductions in corporation and capital gains taxes, as well as greater regulation of trade unions.
Rees-Mogg has opposed increases in welfare benefits, even for the disabled – “the safety net [has] become a trap”, he contends. He supports zero-hours contracts, arguing that they benefit both employers and employees. He backed the controversial “bedroom tax” on council tenants deemed to be living in properties larger than they needed, and caused anger last autumn by appearing to welcome the fast-growing number of food banks. “To have charitable support given by people voluntarily to support their fellow citizens I think is rather uplifting and shows what a good, compassionate country we are,” he told LBC radio. Rees-Mogg is also a climate change sceptic who opposes costly measures to reduce greenhouse gases. “Even if the greens are right, Britain will make very little difference on her own,” he said. “I would rather my constituents were warm and prosperous than cold and impoverished as we are overtaken by emerging markets who understandably put people before polar bears.”
And so the list goes on. He opposes foreign aid because “this is not the job of the government but ought to be a matter of private charity”. He regards fox hunting as “the most humane way of controlling the fox population”. He supports the sale of state-owned forests, the mass surveillance of communications on security grounds, and restrictions on legal aid. He opposes any more devolution of powers to Scotland and Wales.
He wants tougher immigration and asylum rules, and is no fan of positive discrimination. In 2006, he resisted Cameron’s efforts to increase the number of Conservative parliamentary candidates from ethnic minorities. “Ninety-five per cent of this country is white,” he said. “The list can’t be totally different from the country at large.”
“He had these sort of views when he was eight or nine. To still have them when he’s 48 seems to me to be pushing it a bit,” Chris Patten, the former Tory chairman, fellow Catholic and old friend of Rees-Mogg’s family, told me. “I don’t think they
have very much relevance to Britain’s problems in the 21st century, and the idea he could lead his party in this century is completely absurd.”
On the face of it, the idea is indeed absurd. Rees-Mogg has never held ministerial office (nor had Cameron when he became prime minister, but he had spent four years as leader of the opposition before forming a government in coalition with the Liberal Democrats). Except for his indisputable charm, Rees-Mogg comes across as a cartoon caricature of a Tory right-winger, and the ultimate toff in what is supposed to be a modern, egalitarian country. How he would play in Swansea, Sunderland or Stoke is anyone’s guess, for he seldom visits such places. Moreover, Rees-Mogg denies any interest in replacing May. If he threw his hat into the ring it would be thrown straight back at him, he protests. He has six young children, he adds.
And yet it might happen. “Yes it’s fanciful, but it’s not impossible,” says Paul Goodman, the former MP who edits ConservativeHome.
Few take Rees-Mogg’s protestations of disinterest seriously. As an 11-year-old he declared his intention to be “a millionaire by 20, a multi-millionaire by 40 and prime minister by 70”. He is now the bookies’ clear favourite as well as ConservativeHome’s frontrunner. He is speaking regularly at universities. “I’m absolutely sure he will stand,” a friend of his told me.
Rees-Mogg’s challenge will be to persuade the right of the parliamentary party to select him, rather than a cabinet-level Brexiteer, as one of the two candidates to be presented to the party membership.
He would be their riskiest choice, and Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers, doubts he would prevail. “It’s one thing for a lot of members of the public, or the party, to think it’s great fun and admire him for never mincing his words and speaking 18th century English,” he told young activists in an unguarded moment at University College London in January. “It’s another to see that translating to being the prime minister and connecting with the whole of the country. So, no, I don’t see it happening.”
However, Rees-Mogg is a polished public performer and is untainted by last summer’s disastrous election. He has more charisma than Michael Gove, none of Boris Johnson’s personal baggage, and a substantial following among young Conservatives and those older, pro-Brexit party members who will have the final say. “In the end he’s a bit of a radical punt for his colleagues, but if he gets in the last two he will win,” said one supporter who follows the party’s internal machinations closely. Whether Rees-Mogg could win over the wider electorate is a moot point. He might prefer the fountain pen, but he is increasingly adept at social media. Supporters believe voters would warm to a politician who gives straight answers, who is funny and engaging, and whom they see as sincere and authentic even if they disagree with his views. They point to the equally improbable rise of Corbyn.
But the Jacobite rising faces fierce opposition. Late last week, Rees-Mogg was greeted by two separate sets of protesters when he arrived for a debate at the Cambridge Union – EU supporters and gay rights activists. “I never entertained the idea I’d see a politician like him so close to power. That’s absolutely terrifying for the future of this country,” Jessamyn Starr, one of the former, said. “He stands for bigotry and intolerance,” said Matt Kite, organiser of the LGBT “Kiss-in for Rees-Mogg”. “We won’t stand for people like him being wined and dined and applauded when his words have real consequences for people like us.”
Inside, Rees-Mogg was at ease in his dinner jacket. He spoke eloquently and humorously in support of the motion: “This house believes no deal is better than a bad deal.” He failed to address the consequences of “no deal”, but again dismissed the Treasury’s dire economic forecasts – “if you believe those you’ll frankly believe anything” – and castigated the EU for proposing that mobility scooters be insured. “Do we really want to make our elderly people zooming around on those marvellous mobility scooters pay an extra fee over which we have no say?” he asked.
But it was the passionate response of Rees-Mogg’s fellow Conservative MP, Nicky Morgan, the former education secretary, that stole the show. For her, the debate was no game. She tore into Rees-Mogg’s Brexiteer allies for labelling pro-Remain MPs “saboteurs”, and judges “enemies of the people”. She spelled out the catastrophic consequences of Britain leaving the EU without a deal. “Who does want ‘no deal’?” she asked, before providing her own answer: “Those who wish this country ill and want to destabilise it. Those who want us to be a minimal tax, minimal regulation [country]. And those political ideologues who are so caught up in the majesty of Brexit that they have forgotten who loses out – including the little old lady on her mobility scooter – because our economy can’t look after the elderly properly.” The packed chamber burst into applause. Rees-Mogg looked a little shaken. The motion was lost.
Edward Snowden is an American whistleblower who copied and leaked highly classified information from the National Security Agency in 2013 when he was a Central Intelligence Agency employee and subcontractor. His new book “Permanent Record” is now available.
Research by a born-again Christian anthropologist working alone from a cramped desk in this German suburb thrust China and the West into one of their biggest clashes over human rights in decades.
Doggedly hunting down data in obscure corners of the Chinese internet, Adrian Zenz revealed a security buildup in China’s remote Xinjiang region and illuminated the mass detention and policing of Turkic Muslims that followed. His research showed how China spent billions of dollars building internment camps and high-tech surveillance networks in Xinjiang, and recruited police officers to run them.
His most influential work began in February last year, after a Chinese diplomat denied reports about the camps and advised journalists to take Beijing at its word.
Mr. Zenz decided to take up the challenge and prove the diplomat wrong using the Chinese government’s own documents.
“I got really irked by that,” the 44-year-old German scholar said. “I said, ‘OK fine, I’m going to look this up.’ ”
Mr. Zenz uncovered a trail of bidding papers, budget plans and other documents that rights groups, scholars and diplomats say prove the extent of the construction of the camps as part of a Communist Party campaign to forcibly assimilate ethnic Uighurs and other minority groups.
Mr. Zenz’s initial estimate that the camps have held as many as 1 million people has been accepted by the U.S. and some other governments, though rejected by China. He has testified before U.S. Congress and Canadian Parliament.
Chinese diplomats stopped denying the existence of the camps in August, and began defending them as vocational training centers necessary to fight terrorism. It was a rare about-face that experts and activists said Mr. Zenz’s work helped bring about.
“He’s managed to get a tremendous amount of traction,” said James Leibold, an expert on China’s ethnic policies at La Trobe University in Australia who has worked with Mr. Zenz. “The ultimate thing is to see the Chinese government change its approach on this.”
Some other researchers have also uncovered critical aspects of the Chinese campaign and illustrated how unconventional approaches can often be effective, and increasingly necessary, in shedding light on events Chinese authorities prefer to cover up.
Shawn Zhang, a Chinese law student in Vancouver, matched satellite images from Google Earth with details in construction bid documents, providing visual evidence to confirm 66 internment sites.
Gene Bunin, a Russian-American who dropped out of a mathematics Ph.D. program in Switzerland, had studied and lived in Xinjiang. Working with activists in Kazakhstan, he has led an effort to collect testimony from relatives of ethnic Kazakhs and Uighurs who have gone missing in China’s campaign.
Mr. Zenz, though he has a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge, is also an outsider. He isn’t a specialist in Xinjiang and only visited once, more than a decade ago. He funds most of his research himself, using income from a side job coding for a German videostreaming startup.
His rigorous trawling through government sources has been indispensable, Mr. Bunin said, “because that’s the kind of evidence that China has the most trouble refuting.”
China has struggled for decades to eradicate a sporadically violent separatist movement among some of Xinjiang’s 12 million Uighurs. After a spate of terrorist attacks five years ago that Beijing attributed to the influence of radical Islam, President Xi Jinping ordered a new crackdown.
The resulting effort combined policing, surveillance and indoctrination. Chinese authorities initially kept the campaign a secret, but in recent months have portrayed the camps as an innovation in counterterrorism, organizing tightly controlled tours of certain facilities for selected diplomats and journalists.
Chinese authorities have never directly addressed the findings by Mr. Zenz and the others. The Xinjiang government and China’s Foreign Ministry didn’t respond to requests for comment on the scholar’s work.
Mr. Zenz, who wrote his dissertation on Tibetan education, said he has an affinity for China’s minority groups because they seem more open spiritually. A lapsed Catholic, he said he embraced Christianity after an encounter with a Korean-American Baptist pastor while on a university year abroad at American University in Washington. His faith pushes him forward, said Mr. Zenz, who wrote a book re-examining biblical end-times with his American father-in-law in 2012.
“I feel very clearly led by God to do this. I can put it that way. I’m not afraid to say that,” says Mr. Zenz. “With Xinjiang, things really changed. It became like a mission, or a ministry.”
Much of his research has been done from a house on the corner of Immanuel Kant and Herman Hesse streets in Korntal, outside Stuttgart. Until recently, he taught research methods at the European School of Culture and Theology.
In 2016, Mr. Zenz found caches of job-recruitment advertisements online that added up to a buildup of police forces in Tibetan areas of China. The discovery caught the attention of Mr. Leibold, who asked if he could find similar data related to Xinjiang.
“He was sending me emails at three in the morning saying, ‘Look at this’ and ‘There’s tons of stuff here,’” Mr. Leibold said.
Working with Mr. Leibold and others, Mr. Zenz began publishing research that unveiled a security buildup in Xinjiang.
After he came across the denial of the camps by the Chinese consul-general in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Mr. Zenz threw himself into researching the facilities. In a report published last May by the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation, he estimated they collectively held anywhere from 100,000 to slightly more than a million people.
The high end of his estimate became widely cited, including by experts on a United Nations panel that criticized the camps in August. It also generated controversy—with some scholars questioning its accuracy—and dismissive statements from China.
To arrive at the estimate, Mr. Zenz extrapolated from a partial tally of detainees attributed in Japanese media reports to a Xinjiang security official. He cross-referenced that with testimony from former detainees and the documents he unearthed indicating the size and number of camps.
“It was like collecting puzzle pieces,” he says.
In March, at a U.N. panel in Geneva, Mr. Zenz provided a higher, upper-range estimate of 1.5 million. He said the number is speculative, based on continued expansion of detention facilities and pervasive accounts from Uighur exiles with relatives in detention.
“The entire middle-age range is being interned and re-educated,” he says. “It’s absolutely massive.”
China’s government is purging websites of the documents Mr. Zenz has relied on, making his work more challenging. And he said he is sometimes overwhelmed by media requests and government invitations.
He also recognizes it is rare for an academic to shape global discourse and feels that burden. “A lot of the work I do is unemotional, working with data,” he said. “But there have been moments that I’ve been moved to tears.”
Across the United States, Republican-controlled legislatures are outlawing abortion, with the hope of bringing the issue before a sympathetic Supreme Court. If they succeed in revoking women’s reproductive rights, the US will quickly become a different society – one resembling communist-era Romania.HUNEDOARA, ROMANIA – “It was a horrible time,” recounts one Romanian gynecologist, referring to the period between 1966 and 1990, when abortion and contraception were completely banned under the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaușescu. “Women refused to have sexual lives, resulting in family fights and abandonment,” she continued. “For a woman, any sexual contact meant only panic and pain.” As another Romanian who lived through the period put it, “It was impossible to have a normal sexual life because of fear of getting pregnant.”If the Republican Party in the United States has its way, millions of American women could soon come to know the same fear. Republican lawmakers in Georgia, Alabama, and other states have enacted or are proposing outright abortion bans, hoping to bring the issue back before a sympathetic US Supreme Court and overturn or further gut the landmark 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade. In the absence of Roe’s constitutional protection of a woman’s right to have an abortion, America would become a different society, because, as in Ceaușescu-era Romania, the government would police its members’ most personal choices.It wasn’t only women who suffered from the Ceaușescu regime’s attacks on their bodily integrity. Far from strengthening the family, Romania’s draconian “pro-life” policies
- poisoned heterosexual intimacy,
- strained marriages, and
- weakened social trust.
Monthly gynecological exams brought the state inside women’s uteruses and, by extension, into the bedroom. State surveillance of sexual activity resembled that of a farmer breeding livestock. With provisions prohibiting women from going out of state for an abortion, or from using certain contraceptive methods (such as intrauterine devices), much of the new US legislation, if upheld by the Supreme Court, would expose women to a similar enforcement regime.
After the Ceaușescu regime fell in December 1989, one of the interim Romanian government’s first moves was to decriminalize abortion. While debates about many aspects of the communist legacy soon erupted, few Romanians had any doubt that forcing women to have babies they didn’t want had been disastrous for the country.
Even after three decades under the ban, Romania’s birth rate had not increased. Instead, Romanian women had undergone nearly 7.3 million back-alley abortions – an average of three apiece – between 1967 and 1989. At least 15,000 women died as a result of complications and untreated side effects. Romania’s infant-mortality rate during this period was the highest in Europe, and anywhere from two to 59 times above that of other countries.
Though most Eastern Bloc countries expanded women’s reproductive freedoms after Stalin’s death in 1953, by the late 1960s, communist leaders began to worry that declining birth rates would lead to future labor shortages. But while other East European countries addressed the issue through longer paid maternity leaves and higher child-care benefits, the Romanian government took a different path.
Prior to 1966, Romania had one of the most liberal abortion policies in the world. But, desperate for population growth, Ceaușescu issued Decree 770, essentially nationalizing Romanian women’s wombs. Both abortion and contraception were criminalized for all women age 45 and under who had not borne at least four children (later increased to five). The only exceptions were for rape and incest, high-risk pregnancies, and cases in which the fetus could contract a hereditary disease from either parent. The law was strictly enforced. The Romanian secret police, the Securitate, registered suspected pregnancies and kept tabs on women until the birth of the child. It was the kind of natalist authoritarianism that US “pro-life” advocates have long dreamed of.
With challenges to Roe looming on the horizon, and with many US states having already denied access to abortion facilities and reproductive health services through other means, Romania’s experience shows what happens when women suddenly lose the right to control their own bodies. Without reproductive freedom, heterosexual sex turns into a game of “Russian roulette” for women, because they quite literally bear the consequences of any liaison. Indeed, Alabama’s new law goes further than Ceaușescu’s Romania, by eliminating even the exception for rape or incest.
Abortion opponents claim that banning it will
- promote marriage,
- strengthen families, and
- restore traditional gender roles.
But the Romanian case shows that a more likely scenario is a
- rapid increase in maternal mortality, an
- explosion of unwanted children and orphans, and
- a “sex recession,” as wives choose to avoid intimacy with their husbands altogether.
As in Romania, the state’s violent intrusion into the private sphere will upset the lives of men and women alike. Americans can look forward to a future of bad sex and wrecked relationships.
It’s time to face facts. A century of evidence from around the world shows that coercive reproduction policies correlate weakly with actual fertility rates. The fact is that women’s decisions about family size are based on material realities. When basic food supplies are scarce (as in Romania in the 1980s), women will risk their lives having back-alley abortions, for fear of lacking the means to care for a child. Where paid parental leave and childcare are absent or prohibitively expensive, as they are in the US, women will make similar economic choices, regardless of the laws on the books.
After communism, Romania’s people recognized that democratic societies have a responsibility to guarantee women’s bodily autonomy, and to respect the right of all citizens to make their own decisions about whether and when to start or add to a family. It is odd that in the “land of the free,” one of the major parties would emulate a communist dictator.
Communist Party members using the Study the Great Nation app during a weekly meeting in Beijing in February. Tens of millions of Chinese are now using the app, often under pressure from the government.
CHANGSHA, China — Inside a fishing gear store on a busy city street, the owner sits behind a counter, furiously tapping a smartphone to improve his score on an app that has nothing to do with rods, reels and bait.
The owner, Jiang Shuiqiu, a 35-year-old army veteran, has a different obsession: earning points on Study the Great Nation, a new app devoted to promoting President Xi Jinping and the ruling Communist Party — a kind of high-tech equivalent of Mao’s Little Red Book. Mr. Jiang spends several hours daily on the app, checking news about Mr. Xi and brushing up on socialist theories.
Tens of millions of Chinese workers, students and civil servants are now using Study the Great Nation, often under pressure from the government. It is part of a sweeping effort by Mr. Xi to strengthen ideological control in the digital age and reassert the party’s primacy, as Mao once did, as the center of Chinese life.
While many people have embraced the app as a form of patriotism, others see it as a burden imposed by overzealous officials and another sign of a growing personality cult around Mr. Xi, perhaps China’s most powerful leader since Mao’s time.
“He is using new media to fortify loyalty toward him,” said Wu Qiang, a political analyst in Beijing. He likened Study the Great Nation to the little booklet of Mao quotations that was widely circulated during the chaotic and violent Cultural Revolution.
Since its debut this year, Study the Great Nation has become the most downloaded app on Apple’s digital storefront in China, with the state news media saying it has more than 100 million registered users — a reach that would be the envy of any new app’s creators.
But those numbers are driven largely by the party, which ordered thousands of officials across China to ensure that the app penetrates the daily routines of as many citizens as possible, whether they like it or not.
Schools are shaming students with low app scores. Government offices are holding study sessions and forcing workers who fall behind to write reports criticizing themselves. Private companies, hoping to curry favor with party officials, are ranking employees based on their use of the app and awarding top performers the title of “star learner.”
Many employers now require workers to submit daily screenshots documenting how many points they have earned.
Propaganda is ubiquitous in China, but experts say Study the Great Nation is different because the government is forcing people to use it and punishing those who cheat or fall behind.
The app allows users to Watching a video about his recent visit to France, for example, earns one point. Getting a perfect score on a quiz about his economic policies earns 10.
The app comes as Mr. Xi, who rose to power in 2012, is leading a broader crackdown on free speech in China, imprisoning scores of activists, lawyers and intellectuals, and imposing new restrictions on the news media. Mr. Xi has spoken frequently about what he calls the need to guard against online threats. He has warned that the party could lose its grip on power if it does not master digital media.
“There is no national security without internet security,” Mr. Xi said in a speech this year. “If we cannot succeed on the internet, we will not be able to maintain power in the long run.”
David Bandurski, co-director of the China Media Project, said the app was a way for Mr. Xi to ensure that Chinese families are invested in the life of the party at a time when many dismiss propaganda as stilted and irrelevant.
“Loyalty to the party,” Mr. Bandurski said, “means loyalty to Xi Jinping.”
Study the Great Nation in some ways harkens back to the Mao era, when the chairman’s portrait hung in living rooms and families studied his words feverishly. While Mr. Xi cannot yet match Mao’s grandeur, he has borrowed from Mao’s playbook in his quest to be seen as a singular, transformative force.
The app features a television series called “Xi Time” and Mr. Xi’s quotations on topics like building a strong military and achieving a “Chinese dream” of prosperity and strength. The app recommends stories about Mr. Xi on its home screen and sends push notifications highlighting “golden sentences” from his latest speeches. Even the Chinese name for the app is a play on Mr. Xi’s name.
The app, which also offers lighter fare about traditional Chinese culture, history and geography, presents a censored version of current events. Topics such as China’s mass detention of Muslims are not included.
.. Not everyone is as enthusiastic. In interviews, students and workers complained that superiors publicly chastised them for low scores. Others said bosses threatened to deduct pay or withhold bonuses if they did not use the app more frequently. They did not want to provide their names for fear of punishment, but some have complained online.
Critics say Mr. Xi is intruding into the private lives of Chinese citizens in a way the party has typically avoided since the Mao era. The app makes the party’s messages difficult to ignore, awarding points only when an article has been read completely and a video has been watched for at least three minutes.
“You cannot divert attention away from it,” said Haiqing Yu, a professor who studies Chinese media at RMIT University in Australia. “It’s a kind of digital surveillance. It brings the digital dictatorship to a new level.”
The app, which was developed by the party’s Propaganda Department and the technology giant Alibaba, is available on the Apple app store as well as Android app stores in China. The Propaganda Department keeps user data.
It is unclear how closely the government tracks users of Study the Great Nation, but the app requires people to provide a mobile number to register and a national identification number to access videoconference and chat features.
Given the pressures to use the app, a cheating industry involving at least a dozen products has flourished. A man who listed his contact information in an online advertisement for cheating software said in an interview that many of his more than 1,000 customers saw the app as a burden imposed by bosses. He declined to provide his name for fear of retribution.
The government has moved swiftly to prosecute cheating and limit criticism of the app. The police in the southeastern province of Jiangxi last month detained a man who sold cheating software for about $13. The police said the man was running an illegal business.
The state-run news media teems with glowing reviews of the app, including stories about diligent hospital workers and kindergarten teachers who open Study the Great Nation as soon as they awaken, even before they drink water or go to the bathroom.
The app has inspired videos by prison guards, raps by children and adulatory song-and-dance routines by power plant workers. Some party members have suggested the app can be used as a dating tool to screen potential mates (“If you see a guy on the subway using the app,” says one cartoon, “you should marry him”).
In Changsha, which coincidentally is an hour’s drive from Mao’s childhood home, the local news media has lauded Mr. Jiang, the owner of the fishing gear store, for his high scores. He and his wife sometimes answer questions on the app together at dinner, alongside their 9-year-old son.
Mr. Jiang said his military training had inspired him to devote himself fully to Study the Great Nation. By using the app, he said, he has grown even more patriotic.
“President Xi has a dream of great renaissance,” he said. “When young people are strong, the nation is strong.”