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The Dereliction of William Barr

It takes a special kind of attorney general to make Jeff Sessions seem scrupulous.

Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

Attorney General Bill Barr is keeping busy. He previously announced in May that he had appointed John Durham, the U.S. attorney in Connecticut, to review the origins of the Russia investigation during the 2016 campaign. This week, multiple news outlets reported that Barr is putting the full weight of American diplomacy behind the probe. The attorney reportedly asked President Donald Trump to ask the Australian and British governments to aid his inquiry. He also personally traveled to Italy to meet with that country’s intelligence officials and gather evidence himself.

There’s nothing wrong with the attorney general asking foreign governments for help with an investigation, of course. What’s concerning is the nature of Barr’s inquiry itself. The Russia investigation’s origins are already well-documented, both by the Justice Department and by the voluminous reporting on it. It’s reasonable to wonder if the goal here isn’t to produce an honest public record of what happened, but rather to validate President Donald Trump’s conspiratorial claims that he was set up by a “deep state” of national-security officials.

It’s hard to think about Barr’s role in all of this without thinking about his predecessor. Jeff Sessions had been one of President Donald Trump’s earliest political allies and an unstinting champion of his policies in office. When his departure became public last November, I wrote that the former Alabama senator had “spent the last two years reshaping federal law enforcement into a blunter and more punitive instrument, squeezing legal and undocumented immigrants alike, and tilting the scales of justice away from disadvantaged communities.”

Sessions deserved the lion’s share of criticism he received, especially for his role in separating migrant children from their families at the border. The only exception was the criticism that came from Trump. Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation in early 2017 out of ethical and legal obligations, and the president never forgave him for doing so. The Mueller report is essentially a catalogue of Trump’s campaign to pressure Sessions into shutting down the inquiry. When Sessions refused to un-recuse himself or sabotage Mueller, Trump unceremoniously ousted him last November.

Barr, by comparison, seems to have no such scruples about carrying out Trump’s whims. He hasn’t really deviated from Sessions’s overall policy agenda since taking over DOJ. In some aspects of immigration and criminal-justice matters, he’s even gone further than Sessions ever did. But his greatest achievement so far is doing what his predecessor spent almost two years resisting: transforming the Justice Department from a semi-independent actor into an instrument of Trump’s political interests.

Trump never masked his views on how his attorneys general should act. He believes that the Justice Department should protect him and his friends from legal troubles while inflicting them on his enemies. Multiple White House aides told Mueller that Trump would describe Robert F. Kennedy and Eric Holder as attorneys general who shielded their presidents from political harm, and how he needed to find one like them. To Trump, the attorney general is just another lawyer who should be aggressively advancing his personal interests—another Roy Cohn, or Michael Cohen, or Rudy Giuliani.

That’s not how it’s supposed to work. Government officials are supposed to act in the public interest. Since Watergate, the Justice Department has also tried to maintain a degree of separation between its investigatory powers and the White House’s political interests. Trump knows this, and he doesn’t like it. “You know, the saddest thing is that because I’m the president of the United States, I am not supposed to be involved with the Justice Department,” Trump said in a radio interview last November. “I am not supposed to be involved with the FBI. I’m not supposed to be doing the kind of things that I would love to be doing. And I’m very frustrated by it.”

It would be a mistake to think of Barr as one of the supine flunkies with whom the president usually surrounds himself. Barr simply happens to agree with Trump’s views on executive power, the Russia investigation, and the attorney general’s role in American democracy. He made those views clear well before his appointment, drafting an unsolicited 19-page memo in June 2017 that argued Mueller couldn’t lawfully investigate Trump for obstruction of justice. Barr also told a New York Times reporter in November that he had “long believed that the predicate for investigating the uranium deal, as well as the [Clinton] foundation, is far stronger than any basis for investigating so-called ‘collusion.’” Sessions, for his part, resisted GOP demands to appoint a second special counsel to investigate the Clintons by referring the matter to career federal prosecutors, where it promptly died.

In a CBS News interview in May, Barr said he was concerned about foreign election interference and had taken steps to prevent it ahead of the 2020 election. Then he said he was equally worried that some sort of federal bureaucratic cadre—a deep state, perhaps?—could undermine American democracy. “I mean, republics have fallen because of praetorian guard mentality where government officials get very arrogant, they identify the national interest with their own political preferences and they feel that anyone who has a different opinion, you know, is somehow an enemy of the state,” Barr explained. “And you know, there is that tendency that they know better and that, you know, they’re there to protect as guardians of the people. That can easily translate into essentially supervening the will of the majority and getting your own way as a government official.”

The irony is that Barr, more than any of his predecessors since the Watergate era, seems to think that his job is to help discredit his boss’ political opponents. He prefaced the Mueller report’s public release with an unabashed defense of Trump’s misdeeds, saying 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.” (Being mad is not a statutory exemption to obstruction of justice.) While testifying before Congress in April, he also asserted that U.S. intelligence agencies had spied on the Trump campaign, validating one of the president’s favorite complaints. FBI Director Christopher Wray and other U.S. intelligence officials have strenuously denied that any spying took place.

On other DOJ fronts, Barr is staying the course. He seems to lack Sessions’s personal zeal for harsher immigration policies. At the same time, he hasn’t abandoned his predecessor’s cruelty. Earlier this year, the Justice Department tried to convince federal judges that they weren’t legally obligated to provide migrant children in their custody with toothbrushes, soap, or other basic hygiene supplies. An incredulous three-judge panel in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against them in August. Barr is also following Sessions’s draconian footsteps on criminal justice. He announced in July that the federal government would resume executions after a 16-year de facto moratorium.

It’s worth noting that Jeff Sessions was no Elliot Richardson. It took a combination of public pressure and damaging revelations to force his eventual recusal from the Russia investigation in the spring of 2017. The trauma experienced by migrant families at the border during his tenure should also haunt Sessions for the rest of his life. If it does, he can at least take a small modicum of comfort in knowing that he was only the second-worst attorney general to ever serve under President Donald Trump.