Most Americans are exhausted by President Trump’s lies and demagoguery. They don’t want to see his face on TV or read about all the damage he is doing to this nation. But they must not ignore the fact that this president believes he’s above the law and that U.S. Attorney General William Barr wants to keep him there. Yes, instead of protecting the Constitution, the nation’s chief legal officer has become an active enabler of Trump’s unconstitutional behavior.
With all the focus on Trump, however, I don’t believe Americans have been paying nearly enough attention to the dangerous Mr. Barr. Just who is this man? What does he believe? And how is he weakening our democracy?
Barr is a 70-year-old lawyer who received his law degree with highest honors from George Washington University Law School in 1977. He is a devout, conservative Catholic who was President George H. W. Bush’s U.S. Attorney General from 1991 until 1993. After working in the private sector for many years, he was confirmed as Trump’s attorney general in February 2019. By most accounts, Barr was a well-respected conservative lawyer. Although few Democrats voted to confirm him, many hoped he would curb Trump’s legal excesses. They were dead wrong.
What does Barr believe? Well, he has long argued that executive power is expansive. He supports a “unitary executive,” where the president has total power to control executive branch agencies, including the supposedly independent Department of Justice. For example, on Jan. 8, 1991, as deputy attorney general, Barr reportedly told then-President George H. W. Bush that he had unlimited authority to a launch a major war [in Iraq] without congressional permission – or even if Congress voted against it. Keep in mind, the Constitution explicitly gives Congress the power to declare war.
What Barr has been doing to weaken our democracy would literally fill a book, but let’s start with his opposition to special counsel Robert Muller’s Russia investigation. On June 8, 2018, private citizen Barr wrote a 19-page memo to Mueller’s boss, Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein, which opined that Mueller lacked the legal grounds to investigate the president for obstruction of justice. Some called it an application to be Trump’s attorney general. It evidently didn’t succeed in stopping Mueller from thoroughly conducting such an inquiry, however, Barr did get the job he was seeking.
Democrats feared that as attorney general, Barr would simply fire Mueller – but he did the next best thing. More than three weeks before releasing Mueller’s heavily redacted 448-page report to the public, Barr issued a four-page letter to the Senate and House judiciary committees on March 24, 2019. This missive basically cleared Trump of colluding with the Russians during the 2016 election and opined that Mueller didn’t produce sufficient evidence that the president had obstructed justice.
In a letter to Barr dated March 27, 2019, the usually reticent Mueller expressed his concern that Barr’s March 24 letter, “did not fully capture the context, nature and substance of this Office’s work and conclusions.” In May, hundreds of former federal prosecutors from all around the nation published a bipartisan letter online that states “Each of us believes that the conduct of President Trump described in special counsel Robert Mueller’s report would, in the case of any other person, result in multiple felony charges for obstruction of justice.”
Barr was unfazed and has continued to refuse granting Congress access to the unredacted Mueller report.
Suppression of the full Mueller report, however, was merely one of Barr’s democracy damaging decisions. Here, in summary, are just two of his numerous acts to undermine the rule of law:
During February 2020, the highest levels of the DOJ (a.k.a., Barr) pressured prosecutors to seek a lighter sentence than the federal guidelines suggest in the case against Trump’s friend, Roger Stone. The Department subsequently issued an unprecedented overriding sentencing memorandum, which caused prosecutor Aaron Zelinsky to resign from both the Stone case and his temporary appointment in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in D.C. In time, the president commuted Stone’s sentence.
The DOJ filed a motion on May 7 to immediately drop its prosecution of Trump’s former National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, even though he had twice plead guilty for lying to the FBI. A week later, almost 2,000 former DOJ officials signed a letter calling for Barr to resign over what they called his improper intervention in Flynn’s criminal case. The letter assailed Barr’s “repeated actions to use the Department as a tool to further President Trump’s personal and political interests.”
Eighty percent of George Washington University’s law faculty – Barr’s alma mater – signed a six-page letter on June 23 that endorsed calls for Barr to resign, citing his misconduct in the aforementioned matters. The letter stated that Barr has “failed to fulfill his oath of office to ‘support and defend the Constitution of the United States.” It goes on, “Sadly, in his current (second) term as Attorney General, Mr. Barr has demonstrated repeated disregard of the principles [rule of law] for which our institution stands.”
No democracy can long endure without the rule of law. When a huge, unprecedented group of bipartisan legal professionals accuse Attorney General Barr of flaunting this critical tenet and violating his oath to defend the Constitution, they know our democracy is seriously threatened.
Obviously, they don’t believe U.S. democracy can be taken for granted – and neither should we.