In just two years, Attorney General William Barr transformed the Department of Justice into a sleazy, third-rate law firm devoted to shielding Donald Trump and his friends from the consequences of their crimes. A coterie of attorneys with prestigious law degrees and sterling résumés joined Barr’s crusade to place Trump above the law. The attorney general’s tenure played out as a natural experiment: What happens when the embodiment of the right-wing Federalist Society becomes the nation’s chief law enforcement officer? The answer has been a ghastly disaster for the rule of law.
Now that Trump has lost reelection, Barr will soon step down. His departure will not undo the immense damage that he inflicted upon the Justice Department, which is supposed to enforce federal law fairly, impartially, and independently from the president’s whims. He has turned the principle of prosecutorial independence into a farce. It will take years to persuade Americans that the attorney general is anything more than a glorified bag man for the president.
There was never any reason to believe that Barr had a shred of honor. During his last stint as attorney general under George H.W. Bush, he persuaded the president to pardon key players in the Iran-Contra scandal. After a few decades in private practice, Barr then reemerged toward the start of Trump’s presidency, auditioning for his old job. Barr supported Trump’s baseless calls for a criminal investigation into Hillary Clinton over the Uranium One deal. (If you don’t remember the Uranium One controversy, that’s because it was a nonsense conspiracy theory.) He also defended Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey, criticized special counsel Robert Mueller, and circulated a memo arguing that Mueller could not charge Trump with obstruction of justice. This audition worked: Trump tapped Barr for the job in December 2018, securing his confirmation the following February.
Barr immediately assumed the position of Trump’s personal attorney. He released a misleading summary of the Mueller report before its publication that framed the president in the best possible light. Then, just before releasing a heavily redacted version of the report, Barr held an appalling press conference that tried to spin the report in Trump’s favor and justify the president’s blatant efforts to obstruct the investigation. His lies were so egregious that a federal judge later slammed the attorney general’s “misleading” and “calculated” distortions, concluding that Barr could not be trusted.
Even that wasn’t enough for Trump, who reportedly commanded Barr to undermine Mueller’s probe by concocting evidence that … well, in truth, the plan here was never totally clear, which is probably why it failed. It seems Trump wanted his attorney general to prove that the Obama administration—from the president down to the “deep state”—had sought to subvert his 2016 campaign. Barr told Congress that “spying did occur,” then embarked upon a European tour to dredge up proof that the FBI (?) and America’s international allies (??) engaged in a global conspiracy (???) to fabricate Russian interference in the 2016 election. This effort collapsed completely because it was based on the blatherings of fringe, far-right Twitter personalities who had Trump’s ear. Barr never came up with a shred of evidence to back up Trump’s semicoherent ramblings.
But the attorney general came through for Trump on other fronts. He interfered in the prosecution of Roger Stone, the Trump ally who was convicted of seven felonies, including witness tampering, obstruction of justice, and lying to Congress. Barr forced prosecutors to request a lower sentence, though his meddling was rendered irrelevant when Trump commuted Stone’s sentence. The attorney general also compelled the DOJ to drop the prosecution of Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, after Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. Trump had publicly demanded that Barr let Flynn off the hook.
Against the backdrop of this corruption, Barr anointed himself the spiritual leader of the Federalist Society, a powerful group of conservative attorneys backed by a lavishly funded dark money network. In a speech to the Federalist Society that drew continual applause, Barr accused Democrats of seeking to destroy America. He claimed that progressives are on a “holy mission” to “use the coercive power of the State to remake man and society in their own image,” using “any means necessary to gain a momentary advantage in achieving their end.” Trump’s political opponents were borderline terrorists engaged in a “war to cripple” the president. Barr insisted that the executive is effectively a monarch who endures unfair “harassment” and “encroachment” from the other branches. In terms only slightly more academic than Trump’s, Barr told a room of Federalist Society that the president—this president, Donald J. Trump—should be allowed to do whatever he wants to destroy his political enemies, avoid prosecution, and own the libs. His audience responded with a rapturous standing ovation.
It’s important to recognize that Barr did not emerge from nowhere. He is a Federalist Society stalwart, coming up in the conservative legal circles that produced so many of Trump’s lackeys—including his judges. Barr’s most disgusting actions were supported by rank-and-file Federalist Society lawyers installed at the Justice Department to transform Trump’s lies into legal briefs. Need lawyers to lie to the Supreme Court about the real purpose of a citizenship question on the census? The DOJ has you covered. How about the real reason for repealing DACA? No problem. Excluding undocumented immigrants from the reapportion of House seats? Done. None of the DOJ attorneys who lied under oath to shore up some abhorrent Trump policy will face any consequences, either. They have already begun shuffling back to the white-shoe law firms whence they came, where they will crush unions, obliterate the rights of consumers, and defend polluters—until the next Republican presidency, when they’ll get another plum job in the federal government.
Barr found himself in the spotlight whenever he ran interference for Trump. He tried to shield the president from a grand jury subpoena of his tax returns, a congressional subpoena of his financial records, and a defamation lawsuit from one of his alleged rape victims. But what Barr did while few were watching was equally repulsive. His Justice Department argued against the rights of LGBTQ Americans. It fought abortion access tooth and nail. It stood up for the ability of corporations to poison the country with toxic waste and pollution. It combatted states’ efforts to treat immigrants like human beings. It tried to undo one of Trump’s few genuine accomplishments, the First Step Act, by refusing to release elderly, ailing, and rehabilitated federal prisoners. Most importantly, Barr’s DOJ asked the federal judiciary to eradicate the Affordable Care Act—an act that would strip health insurance from 23 million Americans and legalize discrimination against patients with preexisting conditions in the midst of a pandemic.
Despite all this, Barr’s most nauseating moment may have come during the racial justice protests that erupted across the country this summer. The attorney general infamously abetted the gassing of protesters for a presidential photo-op. He flooded D.C. with unmarked federal agents who refused to state which law enforcement agency (if any) they work for. These officers looked, to all the world, like a paramilitary squad. Barr sent federal officers into other cities, where they threw protesters into unmarked vans without any apparent legal justification. He created his own personal battalion by drawing officers from different federal agencies and deploying them to crush demonstrations. He also aggressively charged protesters, urging prosecutors to bring sedition charges and consider prosecuting elected officials.
When Trump nominated Barr, a number of establishment Republicans who loathe the president supported Barr’s confirmation under the theory that he might moderate Trump’s worst instincts. It’s easy to understand why. Barr himself was an establishment Republican for decades, entrenched in the clubby milieu of corporate lawyers, GOP politicians, and academic trolls at the heart of the conservative legal movement. Trump did not convert Barr to Trumpism. He simply gave Barr permission to drop the mask. How many other well-respected conservative attorneys would throw their integrity out the window to further the white nationalist agenda of a criminal con man? A whole lot, as we’ve discovered over the past four years. Barr will be gone by January. But the army of Federalist Society lawyers who elevated him to power isn’t going anywhere.
This is part of a series of goodbyes to Trumpworld figures. Read the rest here.