William Barr showed up to his CBS This Morning interview looking like he was prepared to discuss not the investigation into possible Russian coordination with the 2016 Trump campaign but rather how to bait a fishing hook. The attorney general was working a distinctly “River Runs Through It” cosplay vibe: a tan half-zipped fleece vest over a checked button-down shirt, and in the background, a roaring fire.
To be fair, the interview, which aired Friday, did take place in Alaska, where Barr was traveling. But there are business suits available in Alaska; Barr had worn one earlier on the trip, during a meeting about rural law enforcement issues. So his decision to skip a suit as he held forth on special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation seemed like an attempt to communicate a message.
And that message was: I am a man of the people, and I am here to speak truths and help you earn a Webelos badge.
The collared shirt/fleece vest combo conveys a very specific brand of masculinity. A trustworthiness. A preparedness. A mild, sporty virility — fleece is a performance fabric — revealing just enough visible Oxford button-down to reassure onlookers that its wearer could duck into a phone booth, Superman style, and then comfortably command a boardroom.
Last year, the Wall Street Journal dissected this particular clothing combination and deemed it “the capstone of a new corporate uniform.” It was useful, the article offered, both for transitioning between worktime and playtime, and for hiding a potbelly. A single-purpose Instagram account called Midtown Uniform dedicates itself to capturing collared shirts/fleece vests in the wild; it has 140,000 followers.
On a man of Barr’s age – he’s 69 – the fleece vest takes on a grandfatherly quality and bestows automatic folksiness, which Barr spent the interview leaning into.
He used homespun words like “nooks and crannies” and “cahoots” — as in, “it was bogus, this whole idea that the Trump campaign was in cahoots with the Russians.” He invoked his 30-year relationship with Mueller, and then his own mortality: “Everyone dies.” He repeated his earlier assessment that a letter sent by Mueller’s staff, which expressed misgivings over Barr’s initial communications to Congress, was “a little snitty.”
Speaking of Mueller: Compare Barr’s fleeciness with Mueller’s perpetual uniform of dark suit, white shirt, dark tie. Mueller never comes across as anything but a professional G-man. Maybe you found this comforting. Or maybe, depending on your Q-Anon quotient, you saw his apparel as alarmingly Deep State. Perhaps it reinforced your suspicions that he’s part of an intricate network of government wonks dedicated to kneecapping the Trump administration.
Barr, whose own federal career spans 40 years, somehow managed in his CBS interview to come across as anti-Deep State. He instead took on the role of outsider, hinting at conspiracy theories about the government he himself works for. “I had a lot of questions,” he said, asserting that the Trump/Russia investigation might have been improper from the outset.
A man in a collared shirt and fleece vest can get away with saying a lot of things. It’s a genius sartorial choice, really. Put a top-ranking official in a collared shirt and fleece vest, and he doesn’t come across as a top-ranking official anymore. He comes across as an outsider with insider information, a quasi-interested bystander who just happens to know a few things and have a few opinions.
When CBS interviewer Jan Crawford pressed him for evidence on why he would think the FBI behaved improperly in 2016, he demurred. “That’s all I really will say,” he said. “Things are just not jiving.”
Don’t ask him. He’s the man seventh in line for the presidency, but he’s just here to organize the tackle box and chop a few cords of wood.
Monica Hesse is a columnist for The Washington Post’s Style section and author of “American Fire.”