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Opinion What to do with an attorney general who disdains justice

Attorney General William P. Barr speaks at an event announcing the recipients of the Attorney General's Award for Distinguished Service in Policing at the Justice Department in Washington on Tuesday. (Loren Elliott/Reuters)

You might recall that Attorney General William P. Barr, both in writing and at a news conference, gave a less-than-accurate account (to put it diplomatically) of the report conducted by Robert S. Mueller III. He suggested that the special counsel in the Russia probe refused to reach a conclusion on guilt (rather than being restrained by Justice Department policy against indictment of a sitting president) and worse, suggested that President Trump had been exonerated.

Time and again, the Justice Department under Barr has taken factually and legally suspect positions (e.g. defending a census question based on false representations to the courts, finding no basis for a criminal investigation against Trump for campaign violations in soliciting Ukraine’s help to announce an investigation into a political rival, blocking the inspector general from presenting the whistleblower complaint to Congress, asserting “absolute immunity” to prevent production of witnesses and documents). Now he seems to have assumed the thuggish approach of his boss.

In a speech this week announcing recipients of the Attorney General’s Award for Distinguished Service in Policing, Barr declared that critics of policing in unspecified communities "have to start showing, more than they do, the respect and support that law enforcement deserves. And if communities don’t give that support and respect, they may find themselves without the police protection they need.” That seems like a threat — shut up or lose police protection. That’s the way it sounded to a slew of civil liberties groups.

The American Civil Liberties Union issued a statement, which read in part: “Support and respect are earned, not given as the result of a demand from those who carry badges and guns. Attorney General Barr is telling communities across the country to bow their heads in respect to police even if those same police are violating their rights and killing people without justification.” Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund tweeted that the remarks were “an appalling, unacceptable statement & threat.”

The idea that any Justice Department lawyer, let alone the attorney general, would make such a remark tells you just how far removed Barr has become from equal justice under the law. Only police boosters, it seems, deserve police help. That preposterous notion is antithetical to the First Amendment and to the mission of the Justice Department.

Barr was only getting warmed up. The Post reports:

The prosecutor handpicked by Attorney General William P. Barr to scrutinize how U.S. agencies investigated President Trump’s 2016 campaign said he could not offer evidence to the Justice Department’s inspector general to support the suspicions of some conservatives that the case was a setup by American intelligence, people familiar with the matter said.
Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s office contacted U.S. Attorney John Durham, the prosecutor Barr personally tapped to lead a separate review of the 2016 probe into possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia, the people said. The inspector general also contacted several U.S. intelligence agencies.

The Post’s reporting indicates that Barr is preparing to disagree with the inspector general’s findings, which purportedly include a finding that senior intelligence agency figures were not biased against Trump. He might not be pleased that Durham and Horowitz are about to blow up several key right-wing conspiracy theories, but it would be stunning for Barr to appoint an investigator and then reject his work when it disproves his boss’s delusional accusations. “The prospect of the nation’s top law enforcement official suggesting the FBI may have wrongly opened an investigation into a presidential campaign, even after the inspector general announces the agency was justified in doing so, will probably generate more partisan battles over how the Justice Department and the FBI operate,” The Post notes. Indeed, it would confirm accusations that Barr is a political operative for Trump personally, not the chief prosecutor for the United States.

The Justice Department subsequently issued a statement dismissing such news accounts. ("Rather than speculating, people should read the report for themselves next week, watch the Inspector General’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and draw their own conclusions about these important matters.”)

Former prosecutor Renato Mariotti tells me, “After spending our tax dollars on an investigation that looked like it was politically motivated, Barr will remove all doubt that its purpose was to push a political agenda if he ignores its findings and pushes his agenda anyway.”

It might take years to restore the Justice Department’s credibility. “It is difficult to overstate what an incredibly corrosive and bad actor Barr has turned out to be,” Susan Hennessey, executive editor of the Lawfare blog, tweeted. “He will leave the Department of Justice damaged and warped in ways that will take years and years to repair.”

An attorney general who thinks justice is provided only to a docile populace or that his role is to overlook both the law and the facts in service of the president has no right holding office. “Barr is doing one of the most dangerous things a prosecutor can do: He has a political narrative and is trying to investigate to get facts to fit that narrative,” observed former prosecutor Mimi Rocah. “Prosecutors should investigate and follow facts and be open to conclusions being different than what they thought or want. It’s a total failure of his oath of office.”

Barr’s conduct is both an abdication of his oath and a violation of his professional responsibilities, which demand that prosecutors “seek justice within the bounds of the law, not merely to convict.” The standard governing prosecutors continues:

The prosecutor serves the public interest and should act with integrity and balanced judgment to increase public safety both by pursuing appropriate criminal charges of appropriate severity, and by exercising discretion to not pursue criminal charges in appropriate circumstances. The prosecutor should seek to protect the innocent and convict the guilty, consider the interests of victims and witnesses, and respect the constitutional and legal rights of all persons, including suspects and defendants.

Barr’s conduct has been so egregious that in any normal administration he would have been forced to resign. Since neither that nor impeachment and removal will happen with the Trump crew, state bar authorities should examine Barr’s conduct. If nothing else, the legal profession should hold him accountable for his perversion of his office and rank dishonesty in continually spinning and misrepresenting the law and the facts in service of a corrupt president.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Barr and the GOP cannot handle the truth

Max Boot: William Barr’s chilling defense of virtually unlimited presidential power

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.

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