No one should mistake William P. Barr’s resignation as a principled act to dissociate himself from a president whose conduct has passed the limit of what the attorney general could tolerate: As, respectively, a former colleague of Barr’s in a past Justice Department and an adversary of his in his current role, we certainly do not.
Whether he jumped or was pushed, leaving in this manner is just one more betrayal of the rule of law by a man who has spent the past two years lying and scheming to make President Trump the autocrat he aspires to be.
Just look at the text of Barr’s resignation letter itself. The attorney general is the nation’s leading lawyer and as such has an ethical duty of honesty. But his letter is a masterpiece of dissimulation on a par with his March 24, 2019, letter to Congress mischaracterizing the contents of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report to protect the president — a missive that was later described by a federal judge (a Republican appointee) as “distorted” and evincing “a lack of candor.”
The resignation letter makes an obsequious gesture to Trump’s latest obsession: “voter fraud allegations in the 2020 election,” reassuring the president that those allegations will “continue to be pursued.” These are totally specious claims that have been thoroughly debunked and dismissed by every judicial authority to review them. Indeed, the attorney general himself has said he is aware of no voter fraud allegations that would change the election outcome.
The letter goes downhill from there. It flatters Trump with the absurdity that he has “reached out to your opponents and called for working together.” It is littered with other extraneous compliments completely outside of the attorney general’s portfolio, including a salute to Trump’s purported restoration of the military and “historic peace deals in the Middle East.”
The letter even repeats the familiar falsehood that the Russian collusion claims relating to the last election were “baseless.” In fact, the Mueller investigation revealed powerful evidence of profoundly disturbing Russia contacts.
Indeed, the document is so filled with sycophantic falsehoods as to make one wonder whether it may be a sort of hostage letter. But remember that it was Barr who willingly sought out the opportunity to work with Trump from the start. In retrospect, Barr’s unsolicited 2018 memorandum, which he sent as a private citizen to the White House questioning Mueller’s right to investigate the president’s misconduct, explains why: Barr has an absolutist view of presidential power, and he saw the chance to be Trump’s attorney general as a golden opportunity to advance that goal. In office, there has been virtually no presidential extension of power that Barr has been unwilling to embrace.
The Barr-led Justice Department advanced a bizarre legal interpretation to attempt to cut off congressional access to the whistleblower report that triggered the Ukraine scandal. Barr’s DOJ pandered to Trump’s proclivities with respect to the presidential cronies Michael Flynn and Roger Stone, intervening in judicial proceedings against them both before they eventually received executive clemency. Barr was involved in the infamous clearing of Black Lives Matter protesters from Lafayette Square and walked at the president’s side when he marched across it. And he was there to oust the Manhattan U.S. Attorney investigating Rudolph W. Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, and others who have been associated with the president. He even made the astonishing claim that Trump’s comments about a woman who has accused him of rape were somehow an official act, entangling the Justice Department in Trump’s defense.
The theme running through all of these actions is Barr’s seemingly absolute devotion to presidential power — and to Trump. This includes, especially during 2020, numerous misuses of official power and the attorney general’s public voice in calculated ways to advance the president’s electoral prospects.
So why the break now? Media reports have suggested growing presidential frustration with a series of Barr’s efforts, especially a number of failures effectively to influence the election in Trump’s favor: the failure of his carefully selected designee, U.S. Attorney John Durham, to complete an investigation of purported Obama-era offenses involving Trump’s campaign; the fact that the announcement of an investigation of Hunter Biden was postponed until after the election; and perhaps most unforgivably, the failure fully to embrace Trump’s bizarre voter fraud conspiracy theories.
We may never know whose decision it was, but ultimately, that does not matter. What is important is that Barr’s willingness to exit without a fuss, whether by his initiative or not, is just one more, parting disservice to the rule of law. After the Stone commutation and the Flynn pardon, we face the near-certainty of additional controversial pardons, perhaps even a self-pardon by the president. The latter was previously found to be illegal by the Justice Department. And who knows what other stunts Trump may pull — or ask the department to pull — during the next 35 days? If Barr had a shred of loyalty to the rule of law, he would have stayed and resisted such predations, or at least required the president to fire him. Instead, he slunk away. It won’t redeem him; it’s too late for that.
With his departure, he leaves in charge a deputy attorney general, Jeffrey Rosen, who had no prior Justice Department experience — just the sort of person whom the president regularly puts into acting positions and hopes to make subject to his toxic influence. Speculation that Rosen is being positioned to facilitate martial law or the invocation of the Insurrection Act, is, we fervently hope, overblown, and we think it would not succeed even if attempted. Trump has lost the election. The courts — including many judges whom he nominated and even the Supreme Court, a third of whose members he appointed — have thoroughly rejected his bogus arguments, and more extreme measures would elicit only more extreme responses.
But Barr’s exit does allow the president to run even more amok in attempting to liberate himself and those around him from future federal consequences for their behavior. By abandoning his post, he has put one last lump of coal in the stocking of his reputation — as a man who did his best to replace our democratic system of checks and balances with an autocracy in which one man is above the law.
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