Anyone who serves as attorney general of the United States owes a huge debt to the predecessors who upheld the rule of law while protecting the Justice Department from politicization. Bill Barr, by contrast, can thank the less distinguished ones. They may save him from being remembered as the worst attorney general the nation has ever had.
There was John Mitchell, who went to prison for his role in the Watergate burglary and cover-up. There was Bobby Kennedy, who had all the independence you could expect of someone appointed by his brother and who approved the wiretapping of Martin Luther King Jr.
There was Harry Daugherty, who was indicted in connection with the scandals that engulfed Warren Harding’s administration. Barr can make a plausible case that he doesn’t belong at the bottom of the rankings.
But he was bad enough. The latest evidence comes from his own mouth, in interviews with Jonathan Karl, whose account appears in The Atlantic. It reveals an official who is supposed to serve the public letting himself be used by a corrupt and autocratic president who violated every norm in the ruthless pursuit of his sordid interests.
I naively expected better of Barr when he took office. Barr went into President Donald Trump’s administration with a respectable reputation, having been attorney general under President George H.W. Bush. He appeared to have a sound understanding of the job.
“The attorney general’s oath to uphold the Constitution raises the question whether his duty lies ultimately with the president who appointed him or more abstractly with the rule of law,” he said in 1992, concluding that his “ultimate allegiance must be to the rule of law.” Coming after the partisan ideologue Jeff Sessions and the underqualified nonentity Matthew Whitaker, Barr was bound to be an improvement.
But it didn’t take long for him to disappoint. When special counsel Robert Mueller submitted the report on his investigation, Barr delayed its release and issued a preemptive statement representing it as an exoneration of Trump — which was far from the truth. In his dishonest summary, Barr sounded like the president’s personal lawyer.
But the worst was yet to come. When Trump responded to his election defeat with baseless claims of rampant fraud, Barr undertook an inquiry, while authorizing federal prosecutors to open their own probes. The attorney general did this, he admitted, even though “my suspicion all the way along was that there was nothing there. It was all bull—-.”
As Karl notes, “The move overturned long-standing policy that the Justice Department does not investigate voter fraud until after an election is certified.” Barr’s excuse was that he “knew that at some point, Trump was going to confront him about the allegations, and he wanted to be able to say that he had looked into them and that they were unfounded.”
But if he realized the claims were nonsense, he should not have wasted taxpayer resources on a wild goose chase. He should have mustered the nerve to stand up to the president and tell him he was wrong. Playing along to appease Trump was an act of cowardice.
Instead of coming forward early to dispel the falsehoods, Barr kept quiet, stoking the toxic furies that led to the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol. When he finally spoke up, it was with a mouth full of meal: “To date, we have not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election.”
At a subsequent White House meeting, Barr told Karl, Trump screamed at him. “How the f— could you do this to me?” he demanded, A self-respecting official, confronted with such unhinged abuse, would have quit. Barr didn’t, even meekly promising White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows that he would stay “as long as I’m needed.”
It was a decision he says he soon regretted, watching Rudy Giuliani and other Trump toadies spread dangerous disinformation. When Barr finally stepped down, though, his fawning resignation letter extolled Trump for “unprecedented achievements” that came about despite “a partisan onslaught against you in which no tactic, no matter how abusive and deceitful, was out of bounds.”
To the very end, Barr was willing to debase himself before a president who soiled everything and everyone he touched. He may hope to redeem himself by telling the truth now. But the stink will never come off.