Oblivious to his own double standards, Barr decried Democrats’ “unprecedented abuse of the advice-and-consent process” and “pursuit of scores of parallel ‘investigations’ through an avalanche of subpoenas.”
Remember Merrick Garland? Remember Benghazi?
Apparently not. “Today,” Barr instructed us, “Congress is increasingly quick to dismiss good-faith attempts to protect executive branch equities, labeling such efforts ‘obstruction of Congress’ and holding Cabinet secretaries in contempt.” Remind me what party was in charge of the House when it held then-Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in contempt for refusing to turn over documents relating to the botched “Fast and Furious” gun operation?
But the most revealing part of Barr’s speech was its angrily partisan tone, an us-vs.-them belligerence unbefitting the nation’s chief law enforcement officer. No doubt, the attorney general — any attorney general — is a political appointee. He or she has a proper role as a political ally of the president, and in implementing and promoting the president’s chosen policies.
As the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, however, the attorney general also stands separate from and above the ordinary Cabinet secretary, able to impartially administer justice, without regard to political considerations. While other Cabinet secretaries may campaign for political candidates, it has been the practice of attorneys general to refrain from such partisan activity.
Certainly, attorneys general have ideological points of view, and they are permitted to express and, where appropriate, implement them. Edwin Meese III, President Ronald Reagan’s attorney general, famously used a series of speeches to lay out a theory of constitutional interpretation — the “jurisprudence of original intent” — and outline the administration’s plans to promote that approach in litigating cases.
Barr’s speech was something different, and scarier. He didn’t just disagree with “the other side,” as he tellingly described those with whom disagrees. He vilified them. Barr summarily rejected claims that the Trump administration has shredded constitutional norms and ignored the rule of law. When pressed for specifics, Barr said, the administration’s critics respond only with “vacuous stares, followed by sputtering about the travel ban or some such thing.”
This should not go unrebutted, although it would take a full column to do Trump’s excesses justice, but let me proffer a few, lest I be accused of joining the vacuous starers: attacking federal judges; ignoring congressional subpoenas and instructing underlings not to cooperate with the impeachment inquiry; having his lawyers declare that he is absolutely immune not only from indictment but also from investigation; telling aides to have the special counsel investigating him fired on bogus conflict-of-interest grounds; misleading federal courts about why he wanted to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census.
Oh, and holding up aid to an ally in an effort to secure an investigation of his Democratic rival.
But Barr went beyond a defense of the president he serves to an attack on their political opponents. “The fact of the matter is that, in waging a scorched-earth, no-holds-barred war of ‘resistance’ against this administration, it is the left that is engaged in the systematic shredding of norms and the undermining of the rule of law,” Barr said. The “holy mission” of “so-called progressives,” he said, “is to use the coercive power of the state to remake man and society in their own image, according to an abstract ideal of perfection. . . . They are willing to use any means necessary to gain momentary advantage in achieving their end, regardless of collateral consequences and the systemic implications.”
By contrast, he said, “conservatives tend to have more scruple over their political tactics and rarely feel that the ends justify the means. And this is as it should be, but there is no getting around the fact that this puts conservatives at a disadvantage when facing progressive holy war, especially when doing so under the weight of a hyper-partisan media.”
The other side isn’t just wrong; it is a dangerous enemy arrayed against virtuous conservatives. Listen to this and ask yourself how you would feel if you were a young, liberal law student considering whether to take a position in this Justice Department? How would you feel if you were a veteran prosecutor in a U.S. Attorney’s office, one who vehemently disagrees with the positions of this administration but believes in the mission of enforcing the criminal law for the protection of the public good? Would you feel as though William Barr’s Justice Department has a place for you?
This is the language of an ideological warrior, not an attorney general.