Donald Trump appointed two attorneys general who believed deeply in his presidency as a weapon of vengeance and survival against the terrifying encroachments of liberalism. In the end, Trump turned against William Barr just as he turned against Jeff Sessions. In both cases, the reason was that the very definition of the job could not be reconciled with Trump’s demands.
Trump does not, strictly speaking, believe in the law. He believes the powers of “law enforcement” are a weapon that allow the president to legally harass his enemies and protect his friends. As the Mueller report noted, Trump “said he wanted to be able to tell his Attorney General ‘who to investigate’” and desired “an Attorney General who would protect him the way he perceived Robert Kennedy and Eric Holder to have protected their presidents.” Trump has claimed the “absolute right” to pardon himself for any crimes and to ask any country to investigate any American on any pretext.
Barr, like Sessions, has understood all along that if the president goes around saying that the law is whatever he says it is, it will cease to serve any function. It would quickly devolve into a police state. Barr took care to insist that he was not simply bringing charges against anybody Trump wanted locked up. His oft-stated view was that the rule of law was actually being threatened not by Trump, but by Trump’s tormentors in the deep state:
I think one of the ironies today is that people are saying that it’s President Trump that’s shredding our institutions. I really see no evidence of that, it is hard, and I really haven’t seen … particulars as to how that’s being done. From my perspective the idea of resisting a democratically elected president and basically throwing everything at him and, you know, really changing the norms on the grounds that we have to stop this president, that is where the shredding of our norms and our institutions is occurring.
In Barr’s cleaned-up version, the law would be maintained, but its maintenance required a firm hand by Barr to control the threats that came from out-of-control liberal prosecutors. He frequently compared prosecutors who investigated Trump to a “Praetorian Guard.” He insisted, incredibly, that Trump could not have engaged in obstruction of justice because Trump earnestly believed he was innocent. (By this logic, a president can engage in obstruction of any investigation as long as he convinced himself, or his AG, of his own innocence.)
Reporters often described Barr’s views as some kind of principled belief in unified executive power. Nobody has produced an example of Barr defending this principle under a Democratic administration. And his recent move to appoint John Durham as a special counsel, limiting Joe Biden’s ability to appoint a successor who might curtail his sprawling mandate to investigate anybody who looked into Trump’s ties with Russia, confirms that Barr’s belief in executive power ends the moment Biden puts his hand on the Bible.
Trump persisted in undermining Barr’s long Sisyphean effort to put an intellectual gloss on their shared project. Barr might say he was not simply prosecuting Trump’s enemies, but Trump would blurt out that he very well could lock up whoever he pleases:
And when Barr did follow Trump’s whims, Trump would publicly congratulate him for his compliance:
And there were oh-so-many instances where Barr did just that.
Barr famously misstated the findings of the Mueller report, floating his Trump-friendly summary and permanently shaping the narrative before the actual contents of the report could be seen by the public. For instance, Barr wrote, “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.” In fact, Mueller found, “In some instances, the Campaign was receptive to the offer,” but that the cooperation fell short of criminal conduct.
In cases where Trump was not able to persuade his cronies to withhold cooperation by dangling pardons, Barr dismantled successful prosecutions. His Justice Department renounced its sentencing recommendations against Roger Stone, prompting four prosecutors to resign in protest. He dropped charges against Michael Flynn, claiming the department could not prove a crime to which Flynn had already confessed, provoking both the resignation of a prosecutor and an extraordinary intervention by a judge who all but called the move corrupt.
He purged the U.S. Attorney in Washington, D.C., and replaced her with a partisan loyalist. “This represents a politicization of the U.S. attorney’s office of the District of Columbia that is remarkable, and unique, and unprecedented,” Stuart M. Gerson, a Republican and former Barr aide who served as acting attorney general briefly under presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, told the Washington Post. “It’s a political coup, there really can be no question about it.” Barr attempted to do the same to the Southern District of New York, forcing out Geoffrey Berman.
His motives for all these moves were laid perfectly bare. Barr believed, and explained in a series of detailed speeches to friendly audiences, that liberalism is a sinister force, whose very existence poses a deadly threat to the kind of social order Barr equates with freedom. “Secularists, and their allies among the ‘progressives,’ have marshaled all the force of mass communications, popular culture, the entertainment industry, and academia in an unremitting assault on religion and traditional values,” he railed in one representative speech.
Barr has warned protesters demanding police reform must “start showing, more than they do, the respect and support that law enforcement deserves ― and if communities don’t give that support and respect, they might find themselves without the police protection they need.” He has likewise denounced “an increasingly vocal minority that regularly attacks the police and advances a narrative that it is the police that are the bad guys rather than the criminals.” (Both Barr and Trump of course have frequently disparaged law enforcement for its alleged bias, but in his mind, they, unlike certain ungrateful communities, are entitled to complain.)
Barr endorsed, and by all signs genuinely subscribed to, many of Trump’s most unhinged positions. He complained the media “been on a jihad to discredit” hydroxychloroquine, “this very promising drug,” merely because Trump had endorsed it. He warned that voting by mail would allow massive numbers of false votes to be submitted by foreign governments, a possibility experts rejected. He refused to say whether Trump’s advice to his supporters to vote twice was illegal.
Barr reportedly violated Justice Department procedure in his eagerness to go after Joe Biden and his family. He set up a strange and flagrantly improper “intake process” by which Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s attorney and suspected criminal himself, could funnel the dirt he was digging up with the help of his Russian agent partner to prosecutors, then he put the job in the hands of a notorious partisan. And yet, like Sessions, he infuriated his boss by following some department guidelines: In Barr’s case, he did not leak the Biden probe in the run-up to the election.
And even though he had publicly endorsed Trump’s vote-fraud fever dreams, and ordered his prosecutors to charge cases of fraud, he did not bring any charges, because he couldn’t find any. He could task a prosecutor to find crimes supposedly committed by the deep state, but there’s nothing he could do when the prosecutor came up empty. That is the difference that has separated pro-Trump legal apparatchiks like Barr and most of his judicial appointments like Neil Gorsuch from the likes of Giuliani and Lin Wood. A Trump AG or judge could weave persecution fantasies and terrifying legal doctrines, but could not conjure facts purely out of thin air.
Trump warned before the election, “Unless Bill Barr indicts these people for crimes, the greatest political crime in the history of our country, then we’re going to get little satisfaction unless I win and we’ll just have to go, because I won’t forget it.” Barr tried everything Trump wanted: He sicced his prosecutors on Trumps’ enemies and called them off on his criminal friends. But in the waning days of his corrupt reign, Barr reached the limits of his capacity as Trump’s bureaucratic functionary. His loyalty never wavered, but his powers failed him.