the national interest

Congress Should Impeach William Barr

Attorney General William Barr. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

House Democrats are going to face a difficult decision about launching an impeachment inquiry into President Trump. Balanced against the president’s impressive array of misconduct is the fact that several more criminal investigations that may add to the indictment are already underway, and that impeaching the president might jeopardize the reelection of red-state Democratic members. But in the meantime, Attorney General William Barr presents them with a much easier decision. Barr has so thoroughly betrayed the values of his office that voting to impeach and remove him is almost obvious.

On March 24, Barr released a short letter summarizing the main findings of the Mueller investigation, as he saw them. News accounts treated Barr’s interpretation as definitive, and the media — even outlets that had spent two years uncovering a wide swath of suspicious and compromising links between the Trump campaign and Russia — dutifully engaged in self-flagellation for having had the temerity to raise questions about the whole affair.

Barr had done very little to that point to earn such a broad benefit of the doubt. In the same role in 1992, he had supported mass pardons of senior officials that enabled a cover-up of the Iran–Contra scandal. Less famously, in 1989 he issued a redacted version of a highly controversial administration legal opinion that, as Ryan Goodman explained, “omitted some of the most consequential and incendiary conclusions from the actual opinion” for “no justifiable reason.”

And while many members of the old Republican political Establishment had recoiled against Trump’s contempt for the rule of law, Barr has shown no signs of having joined them. He met with Trump to discuss serving as his defense lawyer, publicly attacked the Mueller investigation (which risked “taking on the look of an entirely political operation to overthrow the president”), called for more investigations of Hillary Clinton, and circulated a lengthy memo strongly defending Trump against obstruction charges.

The events since Barr’s letter have incinerated whatever remains of his credibility. The famously tight-lipped Mueller team told several news outlets the letter had minimized Trump’s culpability; Barr gave congressional testimony hyping up Trump’s charges of “spying,” even prejudging the outcome of an investigation (“I think there was a failure among a group of leaders [at the FBI] at the upper echelon”); evaded questions as to whether he had shared the Mueller report with the White House; and, it turns out, he’s “had numerous conversations with White House lawyers which aided the president’s legal team,” the New York Times reports. Then he broke precedent by scheduling a press conference to spin the report in advance of its redacted publication.

It is not much of a mystery to determine which officials have offered their full loyalty to the president. Trump has reportedly “praised Barr privately for his handling of the report and compared him favorably to former Attorney General Jeff Sessions” —whose sole offense in Trump’s eyes was following Department of Justice ethical protocol. Trump urged his Twitter followers to tune in to Barr’s conference, promotional treatment he normally reserves for his Fox News sycophants.

The press conference was the final disqualifying performance. Barr acted like Trump’s defense lawyer, the job he had initially sought, rather than as an attorney general. His aggressive spin seemed designed to work in the maximal number of repetitions of the “no collusion” mantra, in accordance with his boss’s talking points, at the expense of any faithful transmission of the special counsel’s report.

Barr’s letter had made it sound as though Trump’s campaign spurned Russia’s offers of help: “The Special Counsel did not find that the Trump campaign, or anyone associated with it, conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in these efforts, despite multiple offers from Russian-affiliated individuals to assist the Trump campaign,” he wrote. In fact, Mueller’s report concluded, “In some instances, the Campaign was receptive to the offer,” but that the cooperation fell short of criminal conduct.

Where Mueller intended to leave the job of judging Trump’s obstructive conduct to Congress, Barr interposed his own judgment. Barr offered this incredible statement for why Trump’s behavior was excusable: “[T]here is substantial evidence to show that the President was frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents, and fueled by illegal leaks,” Barr said. “Nonetheless, the White House fully cooperated with the Special Counsel’s investigation,” and credited him further with taking “no act that in fact deprived the Special Counsel of the documents and witnesses necessary to complete his investigation.”

Sincere? How can Barr use that word to describe the mentality of a man whose own staffers routinely describe him in the media as a pathological liar? Trump repeatedly lied about Russia’s involvement in the campaign, and his own dealings with Russia. And he also, contra Barr, repeatedly denied the special counsel access to witnesses by dangling pardons to persuade them to withhold cooperation.

It is true that many of Trump’s attempts to obstruct justice failed. As Mueller wrote, the president’s “efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the President declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests.”

This is a rather different gloss on the facts than the happy story Barr offered the press. What’s more, it is a pressing argument for Barr’s own removal. Next to the president himself, the attorney general is the most crucial actor in the safeguarding of the rule of law. The Justice Department is an awesome force that holds the power to enable the ruling party to commit crimes with impunity, or to intimidate and smear the opposing party with the taint of criminality.

There is no other department in government in which mere norms, not laws, are all that stand between democracy as we know it and a banana republic. Barr has revealed his complete unfitness for this awesome task. Nearly two more years of this Trumpian henchman wielding power over federal law enforcement is more weight than the rickety Constitution can bear.