Attorney General William Barr has been going public this week, expressing his frustration with Donald Trump. Barr is so upset about Trump placing his stubby vulgarian fingers on the scales of justice that he worries that he can’t do his job. He has even thought about quitting.
Don’t you believe it. The manual of the Justice Department says, “The legal judgments of the Department of Justice must be impartial and insulated from political influence. It is imperative that the Department’s investigatory and prosecutorial powers be exercised free from partisan consideration.” But Barr doesn’t believe any of that. He’s not leaving. And he’s not going to stop turning the Department of Justice into a blunt instrument in Trump’s undersized hands.
On Tuesday, The Washington Post reported that Barr had considered resigning in response to Trump’s never-ending tweets about federal judges, prosecutors, and jurors. But on Tuesday night, Barr’s spokesperson made it clear that he wasn’t going anywhere. And no matter how many times the Post quoted “people close” to Trump or Barr about the White House friction over Trump’s Twitter habit, this definitely seems like a moment when it makes more sense to believe what Barr’s spokesperson is saying rather than the media accounts.
The idea that the Department of Justice is supposed to be apolitical and insulated from political decisions isn’t hidden away or just a matter of obscure tradition. That’s the first paragraph of the manual that every member of the department is required to read. That’s what the DOJ is supposed to be—impartial, insulated, free to seek genuine justice rather than be influenced by politics.
All of that is exactly the opposite of what Barr has done from the very moment the Senate blessed his return to the attorney general position. Barr has made it clear, in both words and deeds, that he sees the DOJ as a wholly owned subsidiary of Trumpism, Inc. And he’s not about to back away from using his powers to blunt a blade that cuts deep against Trump’s political opponents.
Since moving his stuff back into the Department of Justice, Barr has:Butchered the Mueller report, creating a false narrative especially designed to replace the actual results in the media spotlight with claims that Trump had been exonerated. To do this, Barr rewrote the conclusion on collaboration with Russia to disguise more than 100 points of active contact. But Barr’s action on the second half of the report was even more amazing: He took 10 instances of clear obstruction of justice and simply declared them okay, based on nothing more than his own opinion. Extended the idea that Trump cannot be charged with a crime while in office—an already controversial ruling—to the even more astounding claim that Trump cannot be named in a criminal proceeding or even considered as part of a criminal investigation. Attempted to hide the intelligence community whistleblower report by issuing a ruling that what the inspector general had determined was a critical issue was not critical at all. Attorneys working for Barr made an unprecedented decision that the whistleblower report did not have to be shared with Congress, despite clear law that said otherwise. That this decision failed to hold was entirely because the inspector general refused to be silent. Pretended during the impeachment proceedings that he was uninvolved in the Ukraine plot, even though he was clearly named by Trump as a conduit between the White House and Ukrainian officials. By refusing to testify before the House, Barr hid any actions he or the DOJ may have taken at Trump’s request … right up until the impeachment was over, when he announced an official pipeline between Trump’s personal attorney and the Department of Justice. Created a special team lead by Connecticut U.S. Attorney John Durham to seek evidence for conspiracy theories voiced by Trump and Fox News. This has included attempting to get intelligence services in Australia, Italy, and the U.K. to provide information that could be used to attack the FBI and CIA. It has also included specifically seeking support for conspiracy theories meant to harm those Trump sees as enemies—from Hillary Clinton to James Comey to Andrew McCabe—despite a lack of genuine evidence. Created a second special team of hand-selected attorneys specifically to harass and undercut U.S. attorneys involved in cases that “interest Trump.” The latter have been subject to questioning about their loyalties and motives even as their cases have been put through additional review and second-guessed by Barr’s Trumpist hit squad. Directly interfered in the sentencing of Michael Flynn and Roger Stone by withdrawing sentencing suggestions and replacing them with much milder alternatives and by removing the U.S. attorney in charge of the Washington, D.C., office—an attorney who had been a member of Trump’s transition team and who was selected for that role by Trump personally—and replacing her with someone who would ignore career prosecutors and go along with Barr’s interference.
The Post story may claim that Barr “has his limits” when it comes to doing what Trump demands. If that’s so, those limits are yet to be tested. Because Barr is not a believer in a “unitary executive,” where all the departments of the executive branch are the responsibility of the president; he is a monarchist, who sees Trump as the owner of not just the Justice Department, but justice itself.
If he has limits, they won’t be found in the manual of the Department of Justice. Their basis might be found in actions of the Committee of Public Safety … or maybe not.