William Barr and Trump
Attorney General William Barr and the President. Credit: White House/Wikimedia Commons

Former FBI Director James Comey tackled a question that many people are asking after watching Attorney General William Barr’s performance over the last month: how was this man with a long history of distinguished public service corrupted? He, like some others, points to the influence of Donald Trump.

[P]roximity 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…He has eaten your soul.

The reason Comey has to rely on blaming the current occupant of the White House is because, when Barr was initially announced as Trump’s nominee to be attorney general, he said, “I like and respect Bill Barr…I know he’s an institutionalist who cares deeply about the integrity of the Justice Department.”

While recognizing some things in Barr’s past that could prove troubling, Benjamin Wittes made the point that Barr would be an improvement over then-acting Attorney General Whitaker.

It is better to have an attorney general who has run the department before and served with distinction in other senior roles within it than to have an acting attorney general whose experience is limited to a brief stint running a relatively sleepy U.S. Attorney’s Office, and an even briefer stint as the chief of staff to the attorney general.

And it is better to have an attorney general with a long-standing professional reputation as a lawyer to protect than to have an acting attorney general who is professionally on the make and dependent on the president, and whose career has included no legal practice of any distinction but, instead, work for some rather shady outfits.

Frankly, the odds of finding someone who would be an improvement over Matt Whitaker would be pretty high. But notice that Wittes describes Barr as someone who “served with distinction” and has a “long-standing professional reputation” on the line.

The question becomes, is Trump the one who is responsible for corrupting Barr to the point that he said one of the most dangerous things we’ve ever heard from an attorney general?

That was a breathtaking moment. Barr asserted that the president could end a proceeding (i.e., investigation) based on his own claims of being “falsely accused.” That is an absurd notion on its face. An investigation is, by definition, an exercise designed to determine: (1) whether a crime was committed, and (2) if there is evidence that an individual committed that crime.

Barr’s statement would be laughable if he attempted to apply it to anyone else in this country who is being investigated for a crime, which demonstrates that the current attorney general places the president above the law. It also indicates that he would have given Nixon a pass for the so-called “Saturday night massacre” in which the president attempted to end the Watergate investigation by fining his attorney general and deputy attorney general for their refusal to fire the special prosecutor.

Barr didn’t make the argument that the president is above the law because he has been corrupted by Donald Trump. He has a long history of being a dangerous ideologue when it comes to these issues. Here are a few examples:

  • He provided the Bush administration with the legal justification for arresting fugitives overseas, even if doing so violated of international law.
  • As deputy attorney general, he advised Bush that he could go to war in Iraq without consent from Congress.
  • He effectively ended the Iran-Contra investigation by encouraging Bush to pardon six Reagan administration officials.
  • A memo he wrote in 1989 on executive authority was used as a basis for the infamous 2005 OLC memo justifying the use of torture.
  • When asked about Trump’s threats to use the Justice Department to investigate his opponents, he failed to defend the independence of the attorney general and stated, “there is nothing inherently wrong about a president calling for an investigation.”

This is the view of executive authority that has run through Republican presidencies since Nixon proclaimed that “when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” It is, of course, worth noting that they change their tune dramatically when the president is a Democrat, but such is the nature of Republican hypocrisy.

Over the course of Trump’s candidacy and presidency, we have seen repeated attempts to define him as somehow outside the norm of Republican politics. While it is true that he exhibits many qualities that make him uniquely unfit for office, it is important to always keep in mind that Donald Trump is an extension of Republicanism, not an aberration. No one demonstrates that more than his current attorney general.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.