Attorney General William P. Barr is on a bit of a public relations blitz two months before the presidential election, giving several recent interviews and participating in an event at a conservative college Wednesday night. What has been revealed is that at a moment when the trustworthiness and objectivity of law enforcement is under scrutiny, the country’s federal law enforcement mechanism is led by an individual willing to offer blatantly false defenses of his boss, President Trump.

Consider his comments at the event at Hillsdale College. Probably the most explosive centered on the effort to contain the coronavirus pandemic this year.

“You know, putting a national lockdown, stay-at-home orders, is like house arrest,” Barr said. “Other than slavery, which was a different kind of restraint, this is the greatest intrusion on civil liberties in American history.”

By itself, this is a ridiculous claim. The federal government at one point forcibly moved and imprisoned Americans of Japanese ancestry. For decades, Black Southerners were murdered extrajudicially after being accused of crimes; for decades, they were systematically blocked from voting.

In remarks at Hillsdale College on Sept. 16, Attorney General William P. Barr compared U.S. stay-at-home orders during the coronavirus pandemic to slavery. (Reuters)

But even in the specifics, it’s nonsense. There was no “national lockdown,” just a federal recommendation — from Trump, mind you — aimed at limiting person-to-person interactions. People could and did leave home, though with far fewer options for where they might go. To say that asking people to stay home to limit the spread of a deadly disease is an act functionally equivalent to enslaving people is simply bonkers.

It does, however, reinforce the Trump-slash-conservative-media view of the moment, a view to which Barr has made repeatedly clear he ascribes.

“All this nonsense about how something is dictated by science is nonsense,” Barr said at another point in the Hillsdale event, a framing that would certainly fit nicely into any of Laura Ingraham’s recent Fox News programs.

Barr has also been publicly bolstering Trump’s unfounded allegations that the upcoming election will be uniquely susceptible to widespread fraud. In an interview with CNN this month, he elevated Trump’s claim that foreign actors could inject undetected votes into election results, an assertion that should be immediately understood as ridiculous to anyone familiar with voting by mail. Among other problems with this idea, do you think a random Russian intelligence official could accurately guess what your signature looks like?

Trump has been eager to establish the results of mail-in ballots as questionable in part because it will allow him to suggest that votes tallied after Election Day — which are likely to skew Democratic this year — are somehow questionable. Barr was explicit about setting the table for that argument in an interview with a Chicago Tribune columnist this week.

“Someone will say the president just won Nevada,” Barr said. “ ‘Oh, wait a minute! We just discovered 100,000 ballots! Every vote will be counted!’ Yeah, but we don’t know where these freaking votes came from.”

This idea that votes are cast in the manner of a third-grade class election is bizarre. Votes aren’t just little sheets of paper with boxes you check with a crayon. They’re linked to actual voters and tracked over time. If someone is seeking to inject 100,000 fraudulent ballots into the state after voting ends, that would be straightforward to detect — by, say, law enforcement.

That comment about Nevada, by the way, immediately followed this one, in which Barr suggested that “liberals” were projecting their own actions onto Trump: “They are creating an incendiary situation where there will be loss of confidence in the vote.”

Perhaps the most remarkable assertion Barr has made of late is that he is a bulwark against the use of criminal accusations as a political tool. The Washington Post’s Devlin Barrett and Matt Zapotosky covered the event:

Barr also criticized what he called the “criminalization of politics,” railing against television pundits for speculating on whether an official’s deed “constitutes some esoteric crime.”
“Now you have to call your adversary a criminal, and instead of beating them politically, you try to put them in jail,” Barr said, asserting that the United States was becoming akin to an Eastern European country.

Barrett and Zapotosky quickly pointed out the irony of an ally of Donald “Lock her up” Trump making this assertion.

The same day that Barr was making those comments, the New York Times reported that Barr had participated in a call with federal prosecutors, asking whether individuals participating in riots or who committed violent crimes at protests could be charged with sedition — that is, with an effort to undermine the government. He also allegedly asked prosecutors to explore whether the mayor of Seattle might be prosecuted for allowing the creation of a small autonomous protest zone this year. The Justice Department denied that allegation.

Barr, of course, has repeatedly otherwise leveraged the weight of the department in Trump’s favor. He has been an active participant in a probe by U.S. Attorney John Durham centered on bolstering Trump’s claims that the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election was unwarranted. The department has stepped in to defend Trump against a defamation lawsuit filed by a woman who alleges that he raped her in the 1990s. And — consistent with a view that politicized prosecutions of Trump’s allies are a problem — Barr’s Justice Department has scaled back its focus on key Trump allies such as former national security adviser Michael Flynn or Trump adviser Roger Stone.

Again, all of this comes in a moment when the aforementioned protests, often organized by the Black Lives Matter movement, have sought to re-elevate questions about the way in which law enforcement does its work. Recent incidents in which Black men have been killed in police custody — including a death in Rochester, N.Y., that police tried to cover up — have renewed concerns about bias in the system of policing and the reliability of law enforcement assertions.

At Hillsdale, Barr echoed Trump in dismissing the Black Lives Matter movement out of hand as insincere.

“They’re not interested in Black lives,” he said. “They’re interested in props, a small number of Blacks who are killed by police during conflicts with police — usually less than a dozen a year — who they can use as props to achieve a much broader political agenda.”

This is the attorney general of the United States suggesting that a broad protest movement that involved hundreds of thousands of Americans in thousands of protests this year is about some nefarious alternate purpose. Sedition, if the Times report about Barr’s views is to be believed. Marxism, if you tune into Fox News. They themselves don’t even know, according to Trump.

It’s the attorney general decrying calls for criminal prosecutions rooted in politics, using his position as the head of federal law enforcement to make insinuations about a movement focused on reforming policing. The attorney general parroting the president’s false assertions about the reliability of mail-in voting. The attorney general claiming that the president’s own suggestion that people remain at home should be seen as practically, if not morally, equivalent to slavery, now that Trump himself opposes containment measures for political reasons.

None of this — timing included — suggests an apolitical approach to the position.