Attorney General William P. Barr testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the special counsel report on Wednesday, May 1, 2019. (J. Scott Applewhite)
Bradley D. Hays is an associate professor of political science at Union College. His scholarship is on constitutional politics, history and development.

Last week, Attorney General William P. Barr testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee on his apparent attempt to whitewash special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s findings, particularly those related to potential obstruction of justice by President Trump. In the course of his defense, Barr said, “We have to stop using the criminal justice process as a political weapon.”

His statement echoed language that President George H.W. Bush used when announcing a controversial pardon in the final weeks of his presidency — after consultation with Barr, who was serving his first stint as attorney general. These statements make plain Barr’s view that prosecutorial investigations of executive officials are inherently partisan and, therefore, illegitimate under the rule of law. But this idea calls into question one of the central principles of the American constitutional system: executive accountability.

In Federalist 70, Alexander Hamilton trumpets the advantages of a unitary executive, that is, the notion that all executive branch authority rests with the president, rather than being divided up among different executive officers, as states such as Texas and New York do.

One of Hamilton’s central arguments was that a unitary executive increases accountability: The buck stops with the president. In a divided executive, it could be unclear whether the president or another executive officer should be held to account for unpopular, unscrupulous or unlawful actions. By making the president accountable for all such action, the people will know how to vote in future elections.

Notably, Hamilton’s ideas on accountability extend beyond the president paying at the ballot box for unpopular action. In Federalist 65, he clearly states that a president impeached for misconduct is also “liable to prosecution and punishment in the ordinary course of law.” In other words, the presidency was not designed to be free from prosecutorial inquiry.

Holding the president and other, subordinate executive branch officials to account was central to our constitutional design and the rule of law, part of the delicate compromise between those at the constitutional convention who wanted a weak executive and those who wanted a strong one.

Hamilton’s reasoning on executive accountability has featured prominently in the development of the concept over time. For example, the United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Clinton v. Jones that the president is not immune from civil litigation due to the constitutional mandate of executive accountability. Indeed, such accountability was not only allowed, but may well have been necessary to protect the rule of law.

Barr, however, rejects this notion — and did so long before Donald Trump entered the political arena. On Christmas Eve 1992, Bush issued a pardon to former secretary of defense Caspar Weinberger for his role in the Iran-contra affair during the Reagan administration. In violation of U.S. law, Weinberger had allegedly facilitated the sale of American missiles to Iran to help fund the contras in Nicaragua. An independent counsel was appointed to investigate the scandal and a grand jury brought indictments on two counts of perjury and one count of obstructing justice. Weinberger protested the fairness of the indictments, but the evidence of wrongdoing was substantial. (Bush, who was vice president during the Iran-contra affair, was implicated but ultimately not indicted.)

When Bush explained his rationale for the pardon, he did not contest Weinberger’s likely guilt. Instead he praised Weinberger’s long record of service to the nation and his role in bringing down the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union.

Bush went further, though, not resting on Weinberger’s meritorious service alone. He pivoted to attack the prosecutions — 14 people associated with the Reagan administration were indicted, and 11 convicted — themselves as inconsistent with law’s necessary neutrality. Bush argued that the prosecutions represented “the criminalization of policy differences” and that “[t]hese differences should be addressed in the political arena, without the Damocles sword of criminality hanging over the heads of the combatants.” Reports at the time indicated that Bush worked closely on the pardon with Barr, which is unsurprising given the views Barr espoused last week.

Indeed, when reading this pardon in conjunction with Barr’s testimony, it's clear that Barr holds a narrow understanding of executive accountability. In both the cases of Weinberger and Trump, prosecutors statutorily shielded from partisan influences found substantial evidence that the figure in question obstructed justice.

Yet because the targets of the investigations were political actors and, ostensibly, the opposition party would benefit from a successful prosecution of them, Barr considers any such prosecution inherently partisan and ill-suited for the courts. In other words, any attempt to investigate whether presidential action was unlawful must be partisan and, therefore, is inappropriate for nonpartisan legal institutions. Instead, as Bush identified in the Weinberger pardon, “the proper forum” for executive accountability was the “voting booth, not the courtroom.”

But this essentially gives the president (and other executive officials) a blank check: Unless misconduct rises to the level of impeachment, or if the partisan realities in Congress render impeachment an impossibility, the president is essentially immune from sanction for breaking the law, at least until leaving office.

This is not how Hamilton and his fellow Founders envisioned the system working. Worried about an out-of-control executive, they aimed to create checks and balances — and accountability. Checks and balances and the rule of law are not just formal institutional arrangements, they are norms of governance that invigorate principles central to the American system of government. Accountability is even more crucial in 2019 than it was in 1787, given how much more power the president wields today than in the 18th and 19th centuries.

When an ideology like Barr’s undermines those norms, the system of accountability carefully crafted by Hamilton and his fellow Founders and developed over two centuries threatens to become unbalanced. The result is a president unmoored from the norms that tether the executive to lawful behavior. That risks the entire American constitutional structure crashing down, as the president asserts himself with little to fear until at least the next election. While executive power has advanced steadily throughout the 20th century, what Barr envisions would be another leap, putting the United States on dangerous ground. It is not too much to ask our presidents not to violate the law. And when they fail to meet that standard, the consequences should be swift and assured.