William Barr Watched Too Much Fox News

Binging on Sean Hannity has corrupted the attorney general’s moral compass and worth as a public servant.

It seems like everyone is trying to figure what is motivating William Barr to debase himself and destroy his credibility. Why did he even want the job of defending the president? And, let’s be clear, that is how he interprets his job description as attorney general of the United States.

In James Comey’s opinion, he’s succumbed to Donald Trump’s nefarious influence.

Amoral leaders have a way of revealing the character of those around them. Sometimes what they reveal is inspiring. For example, James Mattis, the former secretary of defense, resigned over principle, a concept so alien to Mr. Trump that it took days for the president to realize what had happened, before he could start lying about the man.

But more often, proximity to an amoral leader reveals something depressing. I think that’s at least part of what we’ve seen with Bill Barr and Rod Rosenstein. Accomplished people lacking inner strength can’t resist the compromises necessary to survive Mr. Trump and that adds up to something they will never recover from. It takes character like Mr. Mattis’s to avoid the damage, because Mr. Trump eats your soul in small bites.

But that doesn’t explain why Barr took the position in the first place. Eliana Johnson of Politico writes that he had to be dragged kicking and screaming, but he was ultimately convinced to accept the nomination by his longtime conservative legal buddies who share his affection for the Unitary Executive theory.

Ultimately, his friends managed to talk him into it. “We had discussions over a period of time, and I encouraged him to take it,” said George Terwilliger, a conservative attorney and longtime friend of Barr’s.

Barr’s social and professional circle was critical in drawing him into Trump’s orbit. Barr pals, including Terwilliger, Cooper, Luttig and former Virginia Attorney General Richard Cullen are part of a group of elite conservative litigators who were once wunderkinds in the the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. They grew up together and have fought countless political battles alongside one another…

…They are united by a firm belief in a theory of robust presidential power dusted off by Reagan Attorney General Edwin Meese. Known among legal scholars as the theory of the “unitary executive,” they argue that the Constitution grants presidents broad control of the executive branch, including — to take a salient Trump-era example — the power to fire an FBI director for any reason at all.

Yet, it would seem possible to defend the unitary executive theory without becoming an unethical lackey for a criminal president.

I think the simplest explanation is that he’s just another example of an American whose brain has been rotted by consuming too much right-wing media. He’s defending Trump for the same reason that Fox News says he should be defended. Trump is a victim of a witch hunt—a plot to destroy him hatched by liberals and Obama holdovers in the FBI and Justice Department. I think he actually believes this, which would explain his behavior better than the theory that Trump corrupted his morals or that he’s just putting up with Trump in order to defend the power of the presidency.

Watching cable news, I see a phalanx of former Justice Department officials who are somewhere between flummoxed and flabbergasted by Barr’s behavior. They can’t imagine what has happened to him. I think the answer is simple. He sat in his living room watching Sean Hannity and it destroyed his brain, his moral compass, and his potential worth as a public servant.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com