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Bill Barr’s Invisible Crusade

Trump’s attorney general sees himself as a grand cultural inquisitor.

 

When scandal has engulfed past American presidencies, the Justice Department’s independence proved critical to upholding the rule of law. The textbook case was the Saturday Night Massacre, when Attorney General Elliot Richardson resigned rather than carry out President Richard Nixon’s order to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Even in the George W. Bush administration, which faced scandals over politicized prosecutions and executive power, the department managed to preserve its autonomy from the White House at key moments.

Attorney General William Barr has overseen a stunning reversal of this tradition. He is, in many ways, the anti-Elliot Richardson: a loyal foot soldier who has successfully transformed the Justice Department into little more than an enabler of Trump’s policy whims and political interests. Nowhere was this mission clearer than in Barr’s move in May to dismiss the case against former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who had already pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his conversations with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. The Flynn decision came on the heels of another dramatic Barr-sponsored foray to aid a disgraced Trump associate: The department’s effort to secure a lighter sentence for Trump campaign adviser Roger Stone, who was convicted of lying to Congress and witness tampering last November, led to resignations by DOJ prosecutors and calls for Barr’s resignation.

When nationwide protests and unrest broke out after George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police officers, Barr led the charge to suppress them in Washington. He ordered federal police to remove peaceful demonstrators by force from a park in front of the White House, shortly before Trump walked across it for a photo op at a nearby church. Armed men in unmarked riot gear soon appeared on D.C. streets, refusing to identify themselves to reporters. The Bureau of Prisons later confirmed that some of them were members of its riot-control teams. And while Barr blamed antifa for “instigating and participating in the violent activity,” FBI intelligence reports found no evidence that they were responsible.

The attorney general’s transformation into a more erudite version of Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal attorney and onetime fixer-in-chief, serves a higher purpose. Barr frames himself as part of a spiritually driven mobilization to reshape American political life, one that seeks to extend the executive branch’s constitutional powers into the service of a higher calling. Barr sees himself not as the bagman for a corrupt president, but as the disciple of a fading legal and moral order—one in which unbounded executive power goes hand in hand with a sacred mandate to preserve the nation’s Christian culture from secular degeneration.

Barr makes no secret of this worldview. Last October, he delivered a high-profile address on the subject to an audience of students and faculty at the University of Notre Dame’s law school. Such appearances are common for prominent federal officials—but Barr wasn’t talking about the main challenges of his job, or the finer points of the separation of powers in the daily business of the Trump administration. Instead, like a prophet emerging from the wilderness, he delivered an indictment of modern America’s approach to religion.

“This is not decay; it is organized destruction,” he warned in a toneless voice at odds with the substance of his preachments. “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. These instruments are used not only to affirmatively promote secular orthodoxy, but also drown out and silence opposing voices, and to attack viciously and hold up to ridicule any dissenters.”

Though he appeared in his official capacity as a government employee, Barr tailored this stark account of the struggle ahead to his fellow Roman Catholic believers, calling them to a renewed sense of shared spiritual purpose. “As Catholics, we are committed to the Judeo-Christian values that have made this country great,” he told them. “And we know that the first thing we have to do to promote renewal is to ensure that we are putting our principles into practice in our own personal private lives. We understand that only by transforming ourselves can we transform the world beyond ourselves.”

Tellingly, Barr only circled back to the question of the proper aims of federal law enforcement as an extension of this broader culture-war crusade. “Finally, as lawyers, we should be particularly active in the struggle that is being waged against religion on the legal plane,” he said. “We must be vigilant to resist efforts by the forces of secularization to drive religious viewpoints from the public square and to impinge upon the free exercise of our faith.” Barr pledged that as long as he was attorney general, the Justice Department “will be at the forefront of this effort, ready to fight for the most cherished of our liberties: the freedom to live according to our faith.”

Barr’s career fuses two of the most powerful movements on the American right. Like many in the conservative legal movement, he reads the Constitution as a fixed document whose meaning cannot stray far from what the Framers set down in Philadelphia in 1787. But he also draws upon a traditionalist strain in the Catholic faith that rejects any distinction between spiritual life and public life. “We are being pushed steadily off the battlefield, or have been for the last few decades,” he wrote in a 1995 article for The Catholic Lawyer. “Occasionally, we are jabbing back and poking back as we backpedal off the field. What is our larger strategy for preserving the Church and seeing it prevail? How will we get back on the battlefield? How are we going to see the Church transform the world for the better?”


To those who value traditional doctrines like church-state separation and the disestablishment of official religion, the worldview that shaped Barr’s Notre Dame address seems like a dangerous assault on long-held verities of the American civic creed. But for Barr, the speech was a vital statement of first principles that inhere in a more sweeping set of faith commitments—and as he insisted quite explicitly, a de facto to-do list for the powerful federal law enforcement bureaucracy he commands in the Trump administration. It also heralded a series of public speeches to conservative audiences in the months ahead that would articulate Barr’s vision more fully.

Conservative religious activists chiefly look upon Trump as a providential leader carrying out a divine plan of governance, and so their cultish adoration of Trump follows an agenda-driven, instrumental playbook. Barr’s reverence for executive power, by comparison, is rooted in something closer to an animating legal philosophy, one that stands out starkly from those of many of his predecessors as attorney general. His perception of an executive branch under siege by a reckless Congress long predates the battles over holding the Trump administration accountable for its many abuses of power. In July 1989, when he headed up the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel for George H.W. Bush, Barr drafted a memo for the general counsels of other federal agencies, laying out an uncompromising vision of how Congress undermines executive power and how they could push back.

He rejected legislative attempts to shield officials from being fired by the president, require regular updates on internal agency deliberations, and mandate that members of some commissions be chosen by congressional leaders. Barr even argued in one part that it would be unconstitutional for Congress to prohibit the executive branch from “soliciting funds or material assistance from foreign governments (including any instrumentality or agency thereof), foreign persons, or United States persons” so long as it could be justified as “furthering any military, foreign policy, or intelligence activity” whatsoever. “No limitations on the President’s authority to discuss certain issues with foreign governments, or to recommend or concur in courses of action taken by other nations, should be sanctioned,” Barr instructed.

It’s worth pausing to note just how radically American government would be transformed if this vision of untrammeled executive power were to take hold. Congress could no longer prohibit members of a single party from dominating the Federal Election Commission. The 9/11 Commission would have had no power to compel testimony or documents unless George W. Bush had appointed each of its members. The Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors would fear dismissal unless they manipulated monetary policy to suit a president’s whims in an election year. The Iran-Contra affair under Reagan and the Ukraine scandal under Trump would be deemed unambiguously lawful.

At this late stage of the Trump administration, it’s no longer shocking to see cabinet members and other figures in the president’s inner circle gleefully overturning past expectations and norms meant to govern the orderly operation of power in Washington. But Barr’s case is different—not least because when he was confirmed as attorney general in 2019, even liberal detractors of all things Trump hailed him as a welcome return to something like a reasoned pre-Trump status quo, duly deferential to basic notions of separation of federal power and the canons of constitutional law enforcement long established in court precedent. The question for future historians of the American constitutional order is not so much how the ardent culture warrior William Barr seized a key bastion of federal power; rather, it’s how anyone in Congress or the Washington punditocracy ever mistook him for anything other than what he was.

Like any accomplished student of American law, Barr is fluent in the languages of Western liberalism and the Enlightenment—the yoked traditions that sought to elevate legal discourse out of the monarchical mandate to simply legitimate the raw exercise of power. The reigning model of legal inquiry rooted in the Enlightenment tradition holds instead that the law should arbitrate between conflicting interests in an impartial way, and reexamine its own core precepts in line with the cumulative record of reasoned debate in the courts. Barr’s past stints in public service, his establishment credentials, and his well-known friendship with former special counsel Robert Mueller led some observers to believe at first that Barr would be a moderating presence in an administration that seems uneasy at best with the rule of law. Lawfare editor in chief Benjamin Wittes wrote shortly after Trump announced his pick that Barr was “likely as good as we’re going to get.”

But those predictions did not survive Barr’s first few months in office. Last March, a few days after receiving the Mueller Report on Russian interference in the 2016 election, Barr released a four-page summary that watered down the most damning findings. Mueller privately wrote to Barr to complain about the misleading portrayal, and a federal judge later questioned whether the attorney general had made a “calculated attempt to influence public discourse” in Trump’s favor. It’s not the first time that Barr had played janitor for presidential messes—he encouraged George H.W. Bush to pardon a slate of Iran-Contra figures during his first tenure as attorney general—but it was by far the most consequential.

To most Americans, the attorney general is simply the head of the Justice Department and the nation’s chief federal law enforcement officer. Barr has spent the past year acting more as the faithful lord chancellor to Trump’s Henry VIII: cleanly resolving his thorny legal woes to reaffirm the sovereign’s power, turning the machinery of the state against those who bedeviled him in the first place, and advancing a sweeping vision of Trump’s authority where he bows to no one—save, perhaps, for the American electorate and Chief Justice John Roberts.

Along the way, Barr has articulated a paternalistic and sectarian vision for the American political and constitutional order. It would be unfair to describe him as a monarchist, or a fascist, or a theocrat. But he has developed a distinctly counter-democratic civic theology of sorts, drawing upon his own traditionalist Catholic faith and his unusual reading of the Constitution. Having raided the armory of classical liberalism for rhetorical weapons, Barr now stands ready to impose his worldview upon the nation.

In a February speech to the National Religious Broadcasters’ annual convention, Barr framed the turbulence of modern American politics as a binary clash between “two fundamentally different visions of the individual and his relationship to the state.” One of those visions is liberal democracy, which “limits government and gives priority to preserving personal liberty,” he explained. “In the ancient Greek tradition, the state was a positive moral agency whose purpose was to define for men what was good and make them so,” Barr said. “Augustinian Christianity sharply departed from that conception. It saw the state as a necessary evil, with the limited function of keeping the peace here on earth.”

Barr’s invocation of Saint Augustine carried a particular rhetorical meaning for his audience. The fifth-century North African theologian lived and wrote as the western half of the Roman Empire entered its terminal phase. Some citizens in the Mediterranean world blamed the rise of Christianity—and the concurrent abandonment of traditional Roman religious practices—for hastening the empire’s collapse. Augustine wrote The City of God to defend the Christian faith from its pagan attackers.

The attorney general laid out the basic conflict at the center of Augustine’s great work, pitting the Christian city of God, where each person could enjoy a transcendental eternal life, with the fallible, flesh-and-blood city of man. “This world is a fallen one,” Barr announced. “Man is stubbornly imperfect and prone to prey upon his fellow man. Unless there is a temporal authority capable of restraining the wicked—an authority with power here on earth—the wicked men would overwhelm the good ones and there could be no peace.”

Augustine’s influence on Barr appears to be profound. In an interview last May, CBS News legal correspondent Jan Crawford asked Barr whether he worried that his efforts to defend Trump from criticism and consequences would harm his reputation and legacy. Barr replied, “I am at the end of my career.... Everyone dies and I am not—I don’t believe in the Homeric idea that immortality comes by having odes sung about you over the centuries.” Such things, after all, are the province of the city of man.

To Barr, the philosophical-civic consensus arrayed against the city of God is something akin to the barbarian hordes besieging Rome in Augustine’s time. Barr has described this modern variant of self-seeking paganism as “totalitarian democracy.” This fallen creed “is based on the idea that man is naturally good, but has been corrupted by existing societal customs, conventions, and institutions,” he explained. “The path to perfection is to tear down these artifices and restore human society to its natural condition.” In his eyes, this approach springs from the bloodshed of the French Revolution, the tooth-and-claw world of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the utopian hunger to build a more perfect world in an imperfect realm of existence.

From there, he transitioned into his apparent perception of the Democratic Party’s political platform. “The crux of the progressive program is to use the public purse to provide ever-increasing benefits to the public and to, thereby, build a permanent constituency of supporters who are also dependents,” he claimed, moving from Augustine of Hippo to Mitt Romney circa 2012. “They want able-bodied citizens to become more dependent, subject to greater control, and increasingly supportive of dependency. The tacit goal of this project is to convert all of us into 25-year-olds living in the government’s basement, focusing our energies on obtaining a larger allowance rather than getting a job and moving out.”

It’s a steep drop to go from critiquing utopian schemes of human perfectibility to lazy millennials who won’t get off their couch. But the same intellectual pivot drives today’s religious right: a sanctification of laissez-faire capitalism in the name of the one true Christian faith. Appeals to religious authority in this context often flitter between spiritual transcendence and crude worldly functionalism. So as he moved into a litany of political prescriptions for a better civic-spiritual order, Barr subtly downgraded what might be called the vertical dimension of faith in favor of horizontal power aimed at curbing the reach of religion’s worldly foes. He defended religion as a stabilizing force in society under siege by intemperate radicals. He counseled decentralization of government power as an “essential check on despotism” in the religious and political spheres alike. The “destruction of federalism” by mandating one-size-fits-all rules on abortion, he argued, is “another source of the extreme discontent in our contemporary political life.” And he decried the secular mainstream press—another force that’s grown too ideological, and too top-heavy, to act “as a breakwater for the tyranny of the majority.”

Both sides in the culture wars often ascribe the most extreme-sounding motivations to their adversaries. So in a public discourse littered with charges of crypto-fascism or allegiance to a “culture of death,” it may not seem all that incendiary for Barr to claim that his main antagonists are would-be tyrants. But such a charge is far more troubling when it comes from someone obligated to uphold and defend the American constitutional order, which theoretically protects adherents of any faith—or none at all. What’s more, the body of theologically informed principles that animate Barr’s worldview tends, on balance, to dismiss most basic precepts of democratic governance as untrustworthy power grabs by a secular state and the sinister forces of cultural radicalism mobilized behind it.

One key plank of the Barr doctrine is the notion that American conservatism in its Reaganite guise is the guiding model for governing American life. Any proposed policy deviations from it—a more lenient approach toward criminal sentencing, say, or any measure to expand the social welfare state—are inconsistent with Barr’s version of Christian morality. In this rigid scheme of intellectual conflict, deeper ideological differences are not only wrong as a matter of policy and morality; they also pose a fundamental threat to Americans’ liberties and freedoms as Barr understands them.

Such efforts to safeguard against the threat of “totalitarian” democracy might come across as, well, undemocratic. But since spiritual affiliations precede democratic obligations in Barr’s legal theology, the highest civic priority is not so much to expand the reach of democratic self-rule as to guard vigilantly against secular misrule. If the people decide to adopt a policy agenda that does not comport with his worldview, it’s because they’ve been seduced away from the righteous path. When Americans express support for greater government intervention, Barr draws upon Alexis de Tocqueville to argue that they are “vulnerable to a soft despotism wherein the majority would gradually let itself be taken care of by the state—much like dependent children.” When Americans react to an outrage described in the newspapers, Barr argues that ideological conformity in mainstream news outlets gives them “an unprecedented ability to mobilize a broad segment of the public on a national scale and direct that opinion in a particular direction.” By arguing that the people still possess the abstract right to govern themselves but are easily duped by the state or the press, Barr can pay lip service to the constitutional freedoms that he’s sworn to uphold while in practice opposing most things that would advance them in real life. In other words, he manages both to defend democracy in theory while opposing its results in practice.

At Notre Dame, Barr also asserted that only members of the Christian faith possess the moral rectitude for American democracy. When the Founders referred to America’s experiment in self-government, Barr explained, they were describing “the capacity of each individual to restrain and govern themselves,” not elections or legislatures. “In short, in the Framers’ view, free government was only suitable and sustainable for a religious people—a people who recognized that there was a transcendent moral order antecedent to both the state and man-made law and who had the discipline to control themselves according to those enduring principles,” he argued.

Some of the Founders shared Barr’s views. He regularly quotes from a 1798 letter by John Adams to a Massachusetts militia to highlight the alleged primacy of religious observance in American democracy. “We have no government armed with the power which is capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion,” Adams told them. “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” But Adams was writing with an eye toward the then-advancing revolutions in Europe, which the militia’s general had recently seen firsthand in France. Though more conservative elements had since taken control of the nascent French republic, the memory of Maximilien Robespierre and the campaign to de-Christianize France was fresh on both sides of the Atlantic. And for all the culture-war bluster around the alleged will-to-power that motivates today’s secular liberals, it’s hard to discern the totalitarian shade of Robespierre in the battle to secure reproductive choice, let alone in disputes over wedding cakes for same-sex marriages.


Every November, members of the Federalist Society gather in Washington, D.C., for their annual convention. Conservative and libertarian lawyers attend from around the country for three days of social events with their peers and panels featuring prominent judges and law professors. The highlight is the annual Barbara K. Olson Memorial Lecture, which honors the conservative commentator who died aboard Flight 77 when it crashed into the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.

Last year, the organization invited Barr to deliver the annual lecture. He spoke before the friendly crowd on a familiar topic: executive power and his affinity for it. Here was the mirror image of Barr’s spiritual distrust of democracy and its secularizing excesses—an instinctive embrace of executive powers that’s profoundly disturbing in the federal official most responsible for upholding the rule of law. “I deeply admire the American presidency as a political and constitutional institution,” he told the audience. “I believe it is one of the great and remarkable innovations in our Constitution, and has been one of the most successful features of the Constitution in protecting the liberties of the American people. More than any other branch, it has fulfilled the expectations of the Framers.”

To support this claim, Barr produced a highly idiosyncratic reading of the Constitution’s understanding of the power of the executive. “The grammar school civics class version of our Revolution is that it was a rebellion against monarchial tyranny, and that, in framing our Constitution, one of the main preoccupations of the Founders was to keep the Executive weak,” he said. “This is misguided.” Barr noted that by 1776, the British monarchy was well on its way toward becoming the powerless ceremonial institution of modern times, and that Parliament was the Thirteen Colonies’ “prime antagonist.”

This is, at best, a half-truth. Even as revolutionary colonial leaders inveighed against the unjust burden of parliamentary measures such as the Stamp and Navigation Acts, they also fomented rebellion against corrupt royal governors and other officials who enforced the unpopular laws that Parliament had written. As a result, the either/or dichotomy Barr sets up between the crown and the Parliament was, for the revolutionary generation, a both-and proposition. It’s no coincidence that early state constitutions largely favored weak executives and strong legislatures—or that the Bill of Rights largely dwells upon abuses that an executive branch would commit: unreasonable searches and seizures, quartering of troops, prosecution without trial by jury, and the like.

But for Barr, the main event is not the historical context of America’s formative debates over the proper reach of executive power; it is, rather, the effort to secure maximal executive authority in contemporary American governance. The woeful by-product of the common folklore holding that our Founders disliked top-down executive rule, Barr argued, is that their descendants are still distrustful of it today. Contrary to perceptions of an imperial presidency, Barr maintained that the presidency’s power was actually ebbing. “I am concerned that the deck has become stacked against the Executive,” he said. “Since the mid-sixties, there has been a steady grinding down of the Executive branch’s authority that accelerated after Watergate. More and more, the President’s ability to act in areas in which he has discretion has become smothered by the encroachments of the other branches.”

His examples are unpersuasive. Barr first complains that the Senate’s sluggish pace of confirming Trump’s executive-branch nominees, saying that the power to reject nominees “was never intended to allow the Senate to systematically oppose and draw out the approval process for every appointee so as to prevent the President from building a functional government.” This argument would carry more weight if the president’s party did not control the Senate and its rules. Or if Trump was not prone to dismissing Senate-confirmed officials for trivial or dubious reasons, as he did with Barr’s predecessor, Jeff Sessions. Or if the White House acted more decisively to fill key posts instead of leaving positions like the secretary of Homeland Security vacant for more than a year. Trump himself has even suggested that he prefers to have “acting” officials in charge of key government agencies—probably because they are more malleable to presidential whims than permanent appointees tend to be.

Nevertheless, Barr continued to insist that Congress remains all too prone to thwart executive power in favor of its own petty and parochial agendas. “I do not deny that Congress has some implied authority to conduct oversight as an incident to its Legislative Power,” Barr said, in a revealingly grudging formulation. “But the sheer volume of what we see today—the pursuit of scores of parallel ‘investigations’ through an avalanche of subpoenas—is plainly designed to incapacitate the Executive Branch, and indeed is touted as such.”

Barr doesn’t let the judicial branch off the hook either. He derides the idea that courts should resolve interbranch disputes between lawmakers and the White House. “How is a court supposed to decide, for example, whether Congress’s power to collect information in pursuit of its legislative function overrides the President’s power to receive confidential advice in pursuit of his executive function?” he asked the Federalist Society crowd. “Nothing in the Constitution provides a manageable standard for resolving such a question.” His stance would decide any such conflicts in the president’s favor unless 67 senators worked to remove him.

Taken altogether, Barr’s vision for executive power would be alien to the American experience and more akin to royal prerogative. He advocates for an executive branch that operates less like a civil service guided by an elected president and more like an ancien regime court that strives to enforce a singular will. Barr’s version of the presidency would be unaccountable to lawmakers and opaque to judicial review unless it declares itself willing to be. The American public would correspondingly retire in large part from the playing field of our politics; its chief role would be to ceremonially render judgment on the selection of the country’s ruler every four years.

As Trump’s attorney general, Barr has practiced what he preaches. Executive-branch cooperation with congressional requests for documents or testimony is at a shocking low, stemming from Trump’s belief that such requests from the House or from Senate Democrats are presumptively illegitimate. With Barr’s support, Trump took the opportunity in April to purge multiple inspectors general—the independent executive-branch officials who serve as internal watchdogs that report corruption and malfeasance to Congress—after the intelligence community’s inspector general sent a report to Congress last September that prompted Trump’s impeachment in December. For good measure, he also stripped out the inspector general in the just-approved $2 trillion–plus coronavirus bailout package, wiping out one of the key concessions won by Democratic lawmakers in negotiations over the legislation—prior to dismissing the secretary of state’s inspector general in May.


Barr isn’t the first attorney general with strong religious beliefs to draw scrutiny for his approach to faith while holding the position. In 2000, President-elect George W. Bush announced that he would nominate John Ashcroft to lead the Justice Department. Ashcroft had previously served as Missouri’s attorney general, governor, and senator and upheld a deeply social-conservative agenda in each office.

Ashcroft was also the son of a Pentecostal minister, a part-time gospel singer, and a devout evangelical. In the early months of the Bush administration, he made waves by holding 8 a.m. Bible study sessions every day with associates at the Justice Department’s headquarters. Liberal critics took issue at first with his moral absolutism on social issues, and later with his laissez-faire approach toward the Bill of Rights after the September 11 attacks. “I don’t particularly care if I do what’s right in the sight of men,” he was reportedly fond of saying. “The important thing is for me to do right in God’s sight.”

In 2004, though, Ashcroft was called on to sort out a major dispute over the post-Watergate exercise of executive power. He had undergone surgery that March for acute pancreatitis and temporarily transferred control of the department to then-Deputy Attorney General James Comey. His brief tenure in command coincided with a brewing internal crisis over a highly classified NSA domestic-surveillance program set up after 9/11. Bush had signed the directive authorizing the program, which operated without warrants or court approval, and reauthorized it every 45 days with the attorney general’s certification.

Turnover at the Office of Legal Counsel—the Justice Department’s justice department, in effect—had changed the department’s formal view on the program’s legality. Comey, joined by then-FBI Director Robert Mueller and a handful of other top federal law enforcement figures, told incensed White House officials that they could not back the program’s reauthorization when it was set to expire in March. In their view, these sweeping, warrantless surveillance measures violated post-Watergate federal laws that constrained domestic wiretaps by U.S. intelligence agencies.

In his 2007 testimony before Congress over the dispute, Comey mesmerized lawmakers with his account of what happened next. The day after he’d notified the White House about DOJ’s decision, Comey received word from Ashcroft’s chief of staff late one night that White House lawyers were on their way to Ashcroft’s hospital room. Comey, fearing that they would pressure the convalescing attorney general into approving an illegal program, then rushed off to the hospital himself. He arrived minutes before White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card and White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, who brought a letter to reauthorize the program.

The ailing Ashcroft, Comey said, “lifted his head off the pillow and in very strong terms expressed his view of the matter.” Later accounts said Ashcroft criticized Card and Gonzales for misleading him about key aspects of the program when he had signed off on it before. “And as he laid back down, he said, ‘But that doesn’t matter, because I’m not the attorney general. There is the attorney general,’ and he pointed to me, and I was just to his left,” Comey testified. “The two men did not acknowledge me. They turned and walked from the room.”

The showdown eventually led to changes in the program, though congressional efforts to institute strong reforms were still years away. Ashcroft was of course no more a civil-libertarian hero than most Bush appointees in the Justice Department were; he was, indeed, renowned for shrugging off many objections to the post-9/11 surveillance state. But even he had his limits. “Bob, I don’t know what’s happening,” Ashcroft told Mueller shortly after Card and Gonzales left, as Garrett Graff reported the fallout from the clash in a 2013 Washingtonian piece. “There comes a time in every man’s life when he’s tested, and you passed your test tonight,” Mueller replied.

Barr has taken a different path in the Trump era. Less than a week after the Senate acquitted the president in February, federal prosecutors filed their sentencing recommendation for erstwhile Trump adviser Roger Stone. A District of Columbia jury had found the veteran GOP political operative guilty late last year of witness tampering, obstruction of Congress, and other crimes. Federal prosecutors recommended a sentence of seven to nine years, telling the court that Stone not only had obstructed inquiries into Russian election interference, but also had “displayed contempt for this court and the rule of law” after his arrest.

Later that evening, Trump lacerated the Justice Department on Twitter for proposing such a lengthy sentence for a longtime Trump loyalist. “This is a horrible and very unfair situation,” he wrote. “The real crimes were on the other side, as nothing happens to them. Cannot allow this miscarriage of justice!” Sure enough, the Justice Department’s leaders intervened the next day. By the week’s end, the U.S. attorney’s office in D.C. had filed a new brief with the court that recommended no specific sentence, but asked the court to take into account Stone’s age and lack of prior convictions—a request more commonly made by defense attorneys than prosecutors. All four of the DOJ prosecutors who had charged and tried Stone withdrew from the case in protest.

It was a humiliating moment for the Justice Department, and for Barr himself. DOJ officials anonymously told reporters that their intervention was unrelated to Trump’s criticism, but few believed them. More than 2,000 former DOJ employees signed an open letter demanding the attorney general’s resignation for overseeing what appeared to be a quintessentially corrupt act. Barr embarked on a personal media blitz to repair his reputation, including an interview with ABC News where he effectively told the president to stop tweeting about federal criminal cases. (Spoiler alert: Trump ignored him.) Unnamed DOJ officials told multiple news outlets that he was considering resignation.

It’s unclear how close Barr came to actually quitting over the episode—but it’s also unclear why he would contemplate doing so, any more than the outlandish suspension of charges in the Michael Flynn case would prompt his resignation. The attorney general has spent most of his career advocating for a presidency unbound—a constitutional order that allows the nation’s chief magistrates to wield all the various instrumentalities of executive power without any meaningful safeguard beyond their own conscience (or lack thereof). Perpetual irritants like congressional oversight and media scrutiny can be briskly pushed to the side, and even a president’s most powerful subordinates would carry out the White House’s instructions without hesitation. The Roger Stone scandal, in other words, was not the lowest point of Barr’s career. It was its culmination.