William Barr Is Not Trump’s Lapdog

The attorney general’s authoritarian tendencies date back to his disdain for liberals in the 60s.

During Attorney General Barr’s interview with Pierre Thomas of ABC News, he declared his independence.

As I, you know, said during my confirmation, I came in to serve as Attorney General. I am responsible for everything that happens in the department, but the thing I have most responsibility for are the issues that are brought to me for decision.

And I will make those decisions based on what I think is the right thing to do and I’m not going to be bullied or influenced by anybody. And I said, whether it’s Congress, newspaper editorial boards, or the president. I’m going to do what I think is right.

As was Barr’s intent, the media focused on his suggestion that he wouldn’t be bullied by the president. But after his intervention with regards to Roger Stone’s sentencing recommendation, a whole host of people are beginning to speak out in a way that Barr might consider to be bullying.

At this point, over 2,000 former Department of Justice employees (including Washington Monthly contributor Julie Rodin Zebrak) have signed a letter calling on the attorney general to resign.

Mr. Barr’s actions in doing the President’s personal bidding unfortunately speak louder than his words. Those actions, and the damage they have done to the Department of Justice’s reputation for integrity and the rule of law, require Mr. Barr to resign. But because we have little expectation he will do so, it falls to the Department’s career officials to take appropriate action to uphold their oaths of office and defend nonpartisan, apolitical justice.

In an unprecedented move, federal judges have acknowledged the crisis.

A national association of federal judges has called an emergency meeting Tuesday to address growing concerns about the intervention of Justice Department officials and President Donald Trump in politically sensitive cases, the group’s president said Monday.

Philadelphia U.S. District Judge Cynthia Rufe, who heads the independent Federal Judges Association, said the group “could not wait” until its spring conference to weigh in on a deepening crisis that has enveloped the Justice Department and Attorney General William Barr.

Finally, former U.S. Deputy Attorney General under George H.W. Bush, Donald Ayer, has called on the attorney general to resign. Here is how he explained his conclusion to Nicole Wallace.

Ayer points out that “the things that [Barr] has done, which are totally inappropriate, are not a mistake. They are a reflection of who he is and what he believes. And what he believes is un-American. What he believes is that the president should be a person above the law.”

When the attorney general claimed that he wouldn’t be bullied, but would simply do what he thinks is right, he was actually telling the truth. Jon Allsop writes that a lot of the media missed Barr’s point.

[T]he framing of Barr as Trump’s lapdog risks obscuring a much more important fact. Barr is probably being truthful when he says he’s doing what he thinks is right—because, on available evidence, the subservience of the Justice Department to the will and power of the president is what he thinks is right. Barr believes in the centralization of presidential power—just to the point, critics say, where the president is effectively above the law. Barr reached that view independently of Trump.

That isn’t a belief that surfaced in defense of Donald Trump and it predates Barr’s previous term as attorney general under George H.W. Bush. As a matter of fact, according to Barr’s high school classmates, it dates back to his time at an elite private school in the late 1960s.

I found Garrick Beck at his house in Santa Fe more than 50 years after he graduated from Horace Mann. As teenagers, he said, he and his friend Billy debated a subject that has become a touchstone in American politics today: What are the parameters of presidential authority as defined by the founders?

Beck had a granular recall of those discussions: “What we believed innately was already showing through. We argued about the Constitution as it was reflected in President Lyndon Johnson’s treatment of the war. I argued that Johnson did not have the constitutional authority to enact this war. Billy said, ‘All the president needs to declare war is an executive order. That is all!’

That article by Marie Brenner goes on to describe Barr’s conservative, dictatorial father, who was revered by Bill and his four brothers. Coming during the turbulent times of the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, and the “summer of love” in San Francisco, Barr’s transition from a private high school to Columbia seemed to solidify his authoritarian tendencies.

In the face of all this turbulence, Barr went off to Columbia, which erupted his freshman year. The campus strikes and shutdowns, he would later admit, were absolutely crucial in focusing his priorities. When student protests shuttered college buildings, he used the word anarchic to describe the face-off.

In writing about Barr’s speech on executive power to the Federalist Society, Ayer notes this quote, confirming the fact that the attorney general’s priorities solidified around that time.

[T]he deck has become stacked against the executive. Since the mid-’60s, 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.

That is a theme that is rampant among Christian nationalists (or nostalgia voters). The myth about an America they want to “redeem” is grounded in the idea that liberals corrupted everything in the 60s and early 70s. It was the basis of Barr’s claims during his speech at Notre Dame, where he postulated that all of the evils of society are the result of a “holy war” waged by progressives.

The answer to that threat, according to the attorney general, is to empower an authoritarian president, who is above the law, as a way to re-establish order. In Donald Trump, Barr has found just the kind of leader to do that. So he doesn’t need anyone to bully him about how to defend the president and persecute his enemies. Doing so is what animates this attorney general and his un-American tendencies.

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Nancy LeTourneau

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