Last month, at a Federalist Society event, the attorney general delivered an ode to essentially unbridled executive power, dismissing the authority of the legislative and judicial branches — and the checks and balances at the heart of America’s constitutional order. As others have pointed out, Barr’s argument rests on a flawed view of U.S. history. To me, his attempts to vilify the president’s critics sounded more like the tactics of an unscrupulous criminal defense lawyer than a U.S. attorney general.
When, in the same speech, Barr accused “the other side” of “the systematic shredding of norms and the undermining of the rule of law,” he exposed himself as a partisan actor, not an impartial law enforcement official. Even more troubling — and telling — was a later (and little-noticed) section of his remarks, in which Barr made the outlandish suggestion that Congress cannot entrust anyone but the president himself to execute the law.
In Barr’s view, sharing executive power with anyone “beyond the control of the president” (emphasis mine), presumably including a semi-independent Cabinet member, “contravenes the Framers’ clear intent to vest that power in a single person.” This is a stunning declaration not merely of ideology but of loyalty: to the president and his interests. It is also revealing of Barr’s own intent: to serve not at a careful remove from politics, as his office demands, but as an instrument of politics — under the direct “control” of President Trump.
Not long after Barr made that speech, he issued what seemed to be a bizarre threat to anyone who expresses insufficient respect for law enforcement, suggesting that “if communities don’t give that support and respect, they might find themselves without the police protection they need.” No one who understands — let alone truly respects — the impartial administration of justice or the role of law enforcement could ever say such a thing. It is antithetical to the most basic tenets of equality and justice, and it undermines the need for understanding between law enforcement and certain communities and flies in the face of everything the Justice Department stands for.
It’s also particularly ironic in light of the attorney general’s comments this week, in which he attacked the FBI and the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General — two vital components of his own department. Having spent the majority of my career in public service, I found it extraordinary to watch the nation’s chief law enforcement official claim — without offering any evidence — that the FBI acted in “bad faith” when it opened an inquiry into then-candidate Donald Trump’s campaign. As a former line prosecutor, U.S. attorney and judge, I found it alarming to hear Barr comment on an ongoing investigation, led by John Durham, the U.S. attorney in Connecticut, into the origins of the Russia probe. And as someone who spent six years in the office Barr now occupies, it was infuriating to watch him publicly undermine an independent inspector general report — based on an exhaustive review of the FBI’s conduct — using partisan talking points bearing no resemblance to the facts his own department has uncovered.
When appropriate and justified, it is the attorney general’s duty to support Justice Department components, ensure their integrity and insulate them from political pressures. His or her ultimate loyalty is not to the president personally, nor even to the executive branch, but to the people — and the Constitution — of the United States.
Career public servants at every level of the Justice Department understand this — as do leaders such as FBI Director Christopher A. Wray and Inspector General Michael Horowitz. Their fidelity to the law and their conduct under pressure are a credit to them and the institutions they serve.
Others, like Durham, are being tested by this moment. I’ve been proud to know John for at least a decade, but I was troubled by his unusual statement disputing the inspector general’s findings. Good reputations are hard-won in the legal profession, but they are fragile; anyone in Durham’s shoes would do well to remember that, in dealing with this administration, many reputations have been irrevocably lost.
This is certainly true of Barr, who was until recently a widely respected lawyer. I and many other Justice veterans were hopeful that he would serve as a responsible steward of the department and a protector of the rule of law.
Virtually since the moment he took office, though, Barr’s words and actions have been fundamentally inconsistent with his duty to the Constitution. Which is why I now fear that his conduct — running political interference for an increasingly lawless president — will wreak lasting damage.
The American people deserve an attorney general who serves their interests, leads the Justice Department with integrity and can be entrusted to pursue the facts and the law, even — and especially — when they are politically inconvenient and inconsistent with the personal interests of the president who appointed him. William Barr has proved he is incapable of serving as such an attorney general. He is unfit to lead the Justice Department.