The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump wanted an attorney general who’d be loyal to him. He got one.

President Trump and Attorney General William P. Barr walk from Air Force One as they arrive at Waukegan National Airport before attending events on Sept. 1 in Kenosha, Wis. (Matt Marton/AP)

There are two things that we can say with some certainty about President Trump's expectations for law enforcement officials in his administration.

The first is that he has, on more than one occasion, asked individuals holding or being considered for the directorship of the FBI for personal loyalty. He did so in a conversation with James B. Comey shortly after being inaugurated; he did so again when considering then-Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly for the position.

During Kelly’s time working for the administration, both at Homeland Security and as White House chief of staff, New York Times reporter Michael Schmidt writes in a new book, he “was repeatedly struck by how Trump failed to understand how those who worked for him — like Kelly and other top former generals — had interest in being loyal not to him, but to the institutions of American democracy.”

That overlaps with another thing we know: what Trump was looking for in an attorney general.

“Where’s my Roy Cohn?” Trump reportedly asked during a period of frustration with his then-Attorney General, Jeff Sessions. The president prioritized an attorney general who would serve as his own personal legal protector — as the infamous Cohn had at one point — over one whose focus was solely on effectively safeguarding the republic.

In short, Trump wanted a loyal defender in charge of the country's law enforcement apparatus. And now he has one.

William P. Barr came into the job (for the second time) with an established view of presidential authority: that it is sweeping and largely immune to external scrutiny. This is useful to Trump, of course, but Barr has repeatedly demonstrated that his willingness to advocate Trump's political positions extends beyond any academic defense of the presidency as an institution.

On Tuesday, the Justice Department, which Barr leads, intervened in an unusual way in a case that would appear to be well outside its purview.

Last year, writer E. Jean Carroll alleged that Trump raped her in the mid-1990s. Trump’s denials of that claim and his disparagement of her prompted Carroll to sue for defamation. Trump’s personal attorneys sought to delay the lawsuit, which a state court in New York rejected.

So Barr’s Justice Department stepped in, claiming that because Trump was president when he made the comments about Carroll, she should be suing the government, not Trump himself. If this argument is successful, it could cause the case to simply collapse, as University of Texas law professor Steve Vladeck notes: The government can’t be sued for defamation.

The Justice Department is serving as a sort of jurisprudential Secret Service, leaping in front of a significant threat posed to Trump.

A federal court will determine whether the effort to intervene is valid, but there’s little question that this is precisely the sort of thing Trump would have wanted to see from a loyal attorney general.

As the November election approaches, we seem to have seen an increased willingness from Barr to bolster Trump's rhetoric and acquiesce to his whims.

In an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer last week, for example, the attorney general went out of his way to bolster Trump’s arguments that mail-in voting poses a significant risk of widespread fraud, which it objectively doesn’t. Barr claimed, for example, that foreign actors could submit a flurry of votes to swing election results, which is all but impossible. He offered a bleak warning about a man in Texas who had been caught with nearly 2,000 ballots that he planned to complete and submit — a story that was entirely untrue.

Barr also defended a variety of other claims from the president, like Trump's assertion that gangs of ne'er-do-wells were traveling in dark-colored uniforms planning to wreak havoc. That it's Chinese interference, not Russian, which poses the most significant risk to the election. That he didn't accept the determination by a bipartisan Senate committee that Trump's 2016 campaign chairman Paul Manafort was working with an agent of the Russian government.

The investigation into people affiliated with that campaign, of course, offers Barr’s most obvious defenses of the president. To Blitzer, Barr described the investigation into Russian interference as “Russiagate,” adopting the language of those who, like Trump, seek to undermine the probe.

From the first days of his tenure as attorney general under Trump, Barr's worked to defuse the risk posed by the Russia probe, most famously including his efforts to get ahead of the final report from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, described it as exonerating when it explicitly wasn't. Barr's Justice Department has sought to weaken several indictments obtained by Mueller's team, including by seeking to throw out charges targeting former national security adviser Michael Flynn — charges to which Flynn had previously pleaded guilty. The effort to drop the Flynn charges itself led to an unusual legal situation, with the judge in the case refusing to acquiesce without further consideration of the department's claims. The Justice Department's decision to scale back sentencing recommendations for Trump ally Roger Stone led a number of department lawyers working on the case to step down.

Barr has repeatedly misrepresented his own actions and those of his department. The Times’s Charlie Savage documented a number of them last week: untrue claims about the extent of a law enforcement operation endorsed by Trump; misrepresenting the process by which a whistleblower complaint about Trump’s interactions with Ukraine made its way to Congress; and lying about the resignation of the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. (In his recent book, former national security adviser John Bolton reveals that Trump assured Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that Erdogan could look forward to a change in leadership at the SDNY, with Trump installing “his people.”)

At the same time, Barr has elevated Trump’s dubious assertions about the threats faced by the American public. Barr has repeatedly echoed Trump’s claims that a loosely organized group called antifa poses a significant risk to public safety, despite limited evidence that antifa has engaged in widespread violence. When someone claiming loyalty to antifa allegedly shot and killed a man in Portland in late August before being killed by law enforcement, Barr released an unusual statement praising officials for stopping “a dangerous fugitive, admitted Antifa member, and suspected murderer.” He’s released no such statements following the arrest of alleged right-wing criminals.

When protests erupted in late May following the death of George Floyd, a Black man, after a White police officer in Minneapolis knelt on his neck, Barr was instrumental in Trump’s efforts to use federal officers to crack down on both peaceful and violent confrontations. (To Blitzer, Barr shrugged at the idea that Black people are particularly affected by police violence: “These are rare things, compared to the seven- to eight-thousand young black men who were killed every year.”)

It was probably Barr who in early June gave the order to U.S. Park Police to clear peaceful protesters near Lafayette Square, just north of the White House, allowing Trump to head to a nearby church to pose for photos with a Bible. The attorney general repeatedly denied the use of tear gas as the square was cleared, relying heavily on the fact that “tear gas” isn’t usually a gas. In the days that followed, Barr’s Justice Department shifted Bureau of Prisons personnel to the streets of D.C., officers who declined to identify themselves or the organization for which they were working.

Nowhere, though, has Barr’s fealty to Trump been more obvious than in his focus on the origins of the investigation into Russian interference. Barr ordered an internal probe into the investigation’s origins, lead by U.S. Attorney John Durham. Barr has taken an active role in Durham’s probe, though, even accompanying Durham as he investigates international leads. When a report from the Justice Department’s inspector general undermined the idea that the Russia probe had been prompted by political bias, Barr released an unusual statement reframing the report in terms favorable to Trump’s view of the Russia probe. Durham released a statement of his own, stating that “we do not agree with some of the report’s conclusions."

Trump has been pushing Barr to indict officials who were involved in launching the Russia probe, telling Fox News’s Laura Ingraham last week that Barr could “go down as the greatest attorney general in the history of our country or he can go down as just another guy,” depending on whether he produced such indictments.

To Blitzer, Barr denied that either former president Barack Obama or former vice president Joe Biden — Trump’s opponent in November — were under investigation. Barr also assured Blitzer that he would abide by an informal policy of not announcing charges in the last two months of an election, which could be viewed as politically motivated or affecting the outcome of the election.

But then he offered an important asterisk.

“I do not think anything that we do in the Durham investigation — I assume that’s what you’re talking about — is going to be affecting the election,” Barr said.

Unless the Justice Department does nothing at all before the election, that’s obviously untrue. But it’s worth noting the subtext to Barr’s answer: There may be a Durham revelation before Nov. 3, with Barr shrugging at the idea that whatever is produced might overlap with partisan politics.

Presumably in the same way that defusing a defamation lawsuit against the president is just another day’s work for the hard-working men and women under Barr’s command.

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