Barr’s Protection of Trump Can’t Be Normalized

The narrative that is developing about Attorney General William Barr is that he has become Trump’s personal lawyer when his job is to be the country’s lawyer. Here is how a previous attorney general put it.

As I have written on a couple of occasions, Barr’s protection of the president has more to do with his extremist views on executive power than any sense of personal loyalty to Donald Trump. But I take great exception to an attempt by Cokie Roberts to normalize Barr’s behavior.

Despite the Democrats’ insistence Barr is out of line, that the attorney general should serve as the country’s lawyer, not the president’s, that distinction has escaped many of the people who’ve presided over the Justice Department…usually, presidents who expected protection got it.

The two examples Roberts provides for that assessment are Robert Kennedy, who served as his brother’s attorney general, and the fact that Dwight Eisenhower appointed his campaign adviser Herbert Brownell to the position. It is true that the Kennedys engaged in a rather severe form of nepotism, but as Roberts herself wrote, “both Brownell and Robert F. Kennedy eventually received plaudits for their time in office.”

In a column dedicated to the idea that Barr’s behavior is the norm, it is interesting that Roberts devotes most of her time to the exceptions. They include the following:

  • The “Saturday Night Massacre,” in which Richardson and Ruckelshaus resigned rather than carry out Nixon’s order to fire the Watergate special prosecutor.
  • Comey and Mueller rushing to Ashcroft’s hospital bed to protect him from the pressure being exerted by White House aides to sign off on an illegal surveillance program.
  • Jeff Sessions’ recusal from the Trump-Russia probe, which eventually got him fired.

What Roberts didn’t mention is that Ed Meese, Reagan’s attorney general, appointed Lawrence Walsh to investigate the Iran-Contra affair and Janet Reno appointed Robert Fiske to investigate the Clinton’s business dealings with Whitewater Development Corp. Ashcroft recused himself from an investigation into whether Bush administration officials illegally leaked the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame and his deputy, James Comey, appointed Patrick Fitzgerald as special prosecutor.

None of those are as dramatic as the Saturday Night Massacre, but they all demonstrate a willingness on the part of an attorney general to open independent investigations into potential wrongdoing by the president who appointed them. Based on what we’ve seen and heard from William Barr, I doubt that there would have been a Mueller investigation if he had been appointed attorney general instead of Jeff Sessions.

But there is something even more alarming about Roberts’ analysis. She assumes that previous attorneys general have faced the kind of criminality that we’ve seen from Trump. While comparisons to Nixon have been plentiful, most people acknowledge that even his crimes pale in comparison to what we have witnessed from Trump. And as I’ve said before, it goes beyond criminality. This president is a pathological liar who almost daily demonstrates that he is both emotionally and intellectually unfit for office.

Roberts normalizes all of that in a blatant display of bothsiderism, claiming that Barr’s protection of the president is nothing more than typical partisanship that we’ve seen from both Democrats and Republicans. By comparing Barr to previous attorneys general, she is insinuating that there is nothing particularly unique about the current situation. In other words, her contention is that, to the extent that Robert Kennedy protected his brother, Barr is protecting Trump. To make that argument, you have to assume that John Kennedy was as much of a threat to the presidency and this country as Donald Trump. One of the reasons why RFK received plaudits for his time as attorney general, despite the nepotism, is that he was never in the position of having to lie about the findings of a special prosecutor, do everything in his power to impede congressional investigations, or launch numerous investigations into an FBI that the president called “treasonous.”

What could possibly lead someone to embrace that kind of complacency about our current situation? Can a political analyst be so entrenched in Washington, D.C. elitism that they completely lose touch with what the rest of us are witnessing on a daily basis? I have no idea. All I do know is that to normalize what is happening right now is dangerous, and that’s exactly what Cokie Roberts just did.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.