The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

An indictment of William Barr’s tenure as attorney general

As attorney general, William Barr “willingly, affirmatively, and aggressively used the Justice Department as a political tool to help Trump,” writes Elie Honig. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post/POOL)
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“The prosecutor has more control over life, liberty, and reputation than any other person in America,” Attorney General Robert Jackson reflected in 1940. His contemplation of prosecutorial authority has since become a classic within the Justice Department, perhaps because Jackson counsels restraint while also dwelling reverently on the vast scope of a prosecutor’s power; officials in a position to quote the speech can feel a level of pleasure in their authority to be grandly humble. Attorney General Merrick Garland quoted the famous line at his confirmation hearing, and according to the Wall Street Journal, after being sworn in as President Donald Trump’s attorney general, William Barr announced his plan to nab Jackson’s official portrait for his office.

So it is appropriate that Elie Honig cites Jackson’s reflection toward the end of his book “Hatchet Man,” a broadside against Barr’s time in office under Trump. Honig, a former federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York, indicts Barr for treating his role as that of a personal enforcer for the president rather than the leader of an independent Justice Department. The book crosshatches anecdotes from Honig’s career in law enforcement with chapters that walk through Barr’s various abuses.

And the abuses are many. When Trump nominated Barr, many commentators, even those unfriendly to the president — including Honig, as he acknowledges — welcomed the pick as a chance to bring expertise and principle back to a department that had struggled to preserve its independence under Trump’s onslaught. After Barr’s confirmation, it became clear that this was not the new attorney general’s plan. Instead, Honig writes, Barr “lied to the American public time and time again” and “willingly, affirmatively, and aggressively used the Justice Department as a political tool to help Trump.”

“Hatchet Man” catalogues Barr’s time in office from his effort to spin the damning contents of the Mueller report in Trump’s favor, to his meddling in the prosecutions of Trump associates Michael Flynn and Roger Stone, to his role in helping Trump spread falsehoods about the supposed prevalence of voter fraud in the 2020 election. Honig doesn’t hide his contempt for Barr, and he isn’t out to convince those who disagree; no one enthusiastic about Barr will come away with their view changed. Likewise, the book doesn’t attempt to uncover new information about Barr’s tenure, relying instead on the existing public record. But for readers looking for an accessible overview of Barr’s time as attorney general — or dizzied by the sheer volume of scandals that took place during the Trump presidency — Honig provides a useful rundown.

The book focuses more on compiling Barr’s record than on examining why the attorney general did what he did. Before the Trump presidency, Barr was generally seen as an accomplished lawyer, certainly a partisan but within the Republican mainstream. He had already served once as attorney general under President George H.W. Bush, and his tenure then — though marked by an aggressive view of executive power — was not defined by the same disdain for Justice Department independence and principles that marked his Trump-era service. The question of what happened to Barr is, in a way, the question of what happened to much of the conservative legal movement to transform it into a cult of Trump.

When it comes to Barr personally, Honig’s answer is simple. Barr, he writes, “has never tried a single case, in the trenches, as a prosecutor.” Drawing on his own career as a prosecutor, Honig argues that work “in the trenches” of law enforcement provides a particular wisdom, insight and moral code that Barr lacked — and that this lack explains his willingness to turn the Justice Department into Trump’s plaything.

Barr was clearly animated by distaste for the department’s career employees and their traditions. At one point, as Honig notes, he argued that deferring to the independent decisions of low-level prosecutors would be “a good philosophy for a Montessori preschool.” But Honig’s focus on Barr’s lack of prosecutorial experience proves too much. It’s true that many recent attorneys general at one point worked as prosecutors. Among those who didn’t, though, was Edward Levi, who famously restored the department’s integrity after Watergate — and whom Garland has cited as an inspiration. And time prosecuting cases isn’t an inoculation against disrespect for the rule of law. Sidney Powell, who played a starring role in legal efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election in favor of Trump, spent years as a federal prosecutor.

More broadly, Honig’s reliance on the idea of prosecutorial virtue makes for odd reading in a political moment characterized, in part, by increased skepticism toward prosecutors and criminal justice. His paean to the “unimaginable power” of the prosecutor feels incomplete without any acknowledgment of how this mission can go awry or how that power is experienced by those on the receiving end. A passage on “jailhouse lawyers,” for example, dwells on headaches for prosecutors caused by incarcerated people filing “endless legal motions” in court, but it doesn’t address how the practice also allows those behind bars to learn the law and raise legitimate claims about their mistreatment by the criminal justice system. At another point, Honig recounts the story of a defendant who screamed out from a holding cell, “Mr. Elie, please talk to me!” while “sobbing so hard . . . that he threw up.” Honig’s takeaway is that prosecutors must exert “conscious effort” to remember how much power they have and “keep [themselves] in check” — but the anecdote feels like a missed opportunity to take a broader view of the cruelties of American criminal justice and the racial inequity in how those cruelties are distributed.

“Hatchet Man” fits within a recent tradition of Trump-era books that turn to Justice Department traditions as a source of civic and political virtue. Former U.S. attorney Preet Bharara and former FBI director James Comey — both alumni of Honig’s old office, the Southern District of New York — recently wrote books pointing to law enforcement ideals as a counter to Trumpian nihilism. This argument had a genuine appeal during Trump’s age of insincerity, but it always sat uncomfortably with the growing movement for criminal justice reform. Honig’s book raises the question of whether former prosecutors can to continue situating their professional ethic as a guiding star in the absence of Trump and Barr as foils.

Hatchet Man

How Bill Barr Broke the Prosecutor’s Code and Corrupted
the Justice Department

By Elie Honig

Harper.
278 pp. $28.99

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