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Opinion William Barr’s chilling defense of virtually unlimited presidential power

U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr speaks at a news conference on the arrests of nearly 330 fugitives suspected of violent crimes in Albuquerque, N.M., on Nov. 12. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/AP)

President Trump is convinced he has the “absolute right” to do anything from asking other countries to investigate his political opponents to pardoning himself. But he couldn’t possibly tell you why — aside from his innate conviction that “when you’re a star, they let you do it” — you can get away with anything. Enter Attorney General William P. Barr to put a pseudo-intellectual gloss on Trump’s authoritarian instincts. In a Friday night speech to the Federalist Society, Barr gave a chilling defense of virtually unlimited executive authority.

Barr’s wrongheaded assumption was that “over the past several decades, we have seen steady encroachment on presidential authority by the other branches of government.” His view faithfully reflects the conservative consensus of the 1970s when he was a CIA analyst and a law student. Few serious analysts share that view today at a time when the president claims the authority to kill suspected terrorists anywhere in the world without any judicial oversight. In fact, conservatives decried President Barack Obama’s tendency to rule by fiat — for example, in protecting “dreamers” from deportation or reaching a nuclear agreement with Iran that wasn’t submitted for Senate ratification.

Trump has now taken rule-by-executive-order to the next level by declaring a “state of emergency” to spend money on his border wall that Congress refused to appropriate. Trump has also misused his authority in myriad other ways, including obstructing justice (as outlined in a special counsel report that Barr deliberately mischaracterized) and soliciting a bribe from Ukraine to release congressionally appropriated military aid.

Conservatives once believed in congressional supremacy but became intoxicated with the power of the presidency after Ronald Reagan, says George F. Will. (Video: The Washington Post)

Yet, to hear Barr tell it, Trump is somehow denied power by the nefarious “Resistance.” Barr decried Trump critics who do not view “themselves as the ‘loyal opposition,’” but rather “see themselves as engaged in a war to cripple, by any means necessary, a duly elected government.”

Earth to Barr: Trump does not treat his critics as “the loyal opposition." He calls them “human scum,” “traitors” and “the enemy of the people,” using the language of dictators. And it is Trump and his toadies — not his opponents — who are “willing to use any means necessary to gain momentary advantage.”

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Barr went on to blame the “Resistance” for Trump’s failure to get more nominees confirmed. The real problem is Trump’s incompetence and his preference for “acting” appointees to dodge the constitutional requirement to seek the Senate’s “advice and consent.” (Trump has not nominated anyone for nearly 20 percent of the top federal jobs.) If Barr wants to find a real abuse of the confirmation process, he should talk to Merrick Garland.

As devoid of self-awareness as his master, Barr whines about “the pursuit of scores of parallel ‘investigations’ through an avalanche of subpoenas.” He conveniently forgets that Republicans tried to impeach President Bill Clinton for lying about sex and spent years probing the Benghazi, Libya, attack in a failed attempt to blame Hillary Clinton. Trump is stonewalling congressional subpoenas at an unprecedented rate, forcing Congress to seek judicial assistance to enforce legitimate requests for documents and witnesses. But Barr denies that the courts have any right to “resolve … disputes” between the executive and legislative branches — effectively allowing the president to act like a king.

The attorney general went on to rail against judicial review of administration actions such as “the travel ban.” This was ultimately upheld by the Supreme Court after the administration rewrote the initial versions, which constituted clear discrimination on religious grounds. Yet Barr is still aggrieved that the courts dared “to inquire into the subjective motivation behind governmental action” — i.e., to look at Trump’s own words about banning Muslims rather than accept the administration’s disingenuous explanations.

Barr blamed the courts and the president’s critics for the fact that so many administration actions have been challenged in court. The truth is Trump has nobody but himself to blame. Many of the lawsuits accuse the administration of violating the Administrative Procedure Act, which the executive branch can comply with simply by showing that its actions are not “arbitrary and capricious.” This is an incredibly low standard, which is why the normal “win rate” for the government in such cases is about 70 percent. According to the Institute for Policy Integrity at the New York University School of Law, the Trump administration’s win rate is less than 7 percent.

Trump likes to blame such setbacks on “Obama judges,” but many of the judges ruling against him are Republican appointees. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., for example, wrote the 5-to-4 decision in June in which the Supreme Court blocked Trump’s attempt to include a citizenship question on the 2020 Census.

“In this partisan age,” Barr sanctimoniously concluded, “we should take special care not to allow the passions of the moment to cause us to permanently disfigure the genius of our Constitutional structure.” He is right, but not in the way he intended. The real threat to “our Constitutional structure” emanates not from administration critics who struggle to uphold the rule of law but from a lawless president who is aided and abetted in his reckless actions by unscrupulous and unprincipled partisans — including the attorney general of the United States.

Read more:

Dana Milbank: It’s too late to save yourself now, Bill Barr

Jennifer Rubin: William Barr, Trump toady

Harry Litman: Did William Barr break any rules? Only the most important one.

Jennifer Rubin: Barr’s testimony was a low point in Justice Department history

The Post’s View: William Barr torched his reputation. His testimony compounded the damage.