The Barr DOJ Has Become a Private Law Firm for the President
This week’s stalemate over an intelligence whistleblower is just the latest example
William Barr’s official title is United States Attorney General.
His real job, however, is something quite different: operating a private law firm out of the Department of Justice with one client — the president of the United States.
The result is that to a degree unprecedented in modern American history, the Justice Department has become a partisan arm of the White House. Under Barr’s leadership, the DOJ is running interference for the president, rebuffing congressional efforts to conduct oversight of the executive branch, and, in recent days, blocking revelations that could implicate the president in criminal wrongdoing.
This story begins last spring with Barr’s four-page letter to Congress detailing the key conclusions of the Mueller Report. That letter largely exonerated Trump of criminal wrongdoing and so-called collusion with Russia.
But when the actual report was finally released six weeks later, it was disturbingly evident that Barr had misled the public, mischaracterized Mueller’s conclusion, and omitted key facts about Trump’s efforts to obstruct justice.
Barr’s determination that there was “not sufficient” evidence to prosecute the president for criminal acts not only went against long-standing Department of Justice precedent regarding prosecution of a sitting president, but it wasn’t Barr’s call to make. Ultimately, it is Congress’ job to make such determinations.
In subsequent congressional testimony, Barr made the astounding claim that the president can simply decide on his own to pull the plug on a criminal investigation if he believes it is “not well-founded… groundless… and based on false allegations.” The nation’s top law enforcement figure was basically arguing that the president can act as judge and jury when deciding to end an investigation, even one that implicates him. By Barr’s argument, Richard Nixon would have been on solid legal ground abruptly ending the Watergate investigation.
Since then, Barr’s efforts to protect the president have become more blatant. He continues to block congressional subpoenas demanding that he turn over the unredacted Mueller report, including grand jury testimony (an act that led him to be held in criminal contempt by Congress); and refused to appear before Congress because he didn’t want to be questioned by a House Judiciary Committee staffer.
It’s not just on Mueller where Barr is seeking to shield the president from accountability.
Last month, Barr’s Department of Justice filed a bizarre amicus brief backing the president’s dubious legal argument that federal courts should block a House subpoena requesting the president’s financial records from his former accountant.
As Mark Joseph Stern pointed out in Slate, there is no reason or precedent for the DOJ to involve itself in a dispute between Congress and the president. But that didn’t stop the department from drafting a brief that argues, among other things, that the Congress cannot investigate a president without opening an impeachment inquiry and accusing the House of attempting “to interfere with or harass the Head of the Executive Branch.”
Since the Democratic takeover of the House in November 2018, the White House has largely adopted the position that Congress has no right to investigate or scrutinize the president’s actions. They’ve refused to turn over subpoenaed materials and prevented, with no serious legal basis, former White House staffers, and even private citizens who never worked in the administration, from testifying before Congress. The Department of Justice, under Barr’s leadership, is now actively aiding and abetting this effort.
When Barr is not seeking to buttress a view of presidential power that would place Trump squarely above the law, he is acting in a shamelessly political manner that leaves little question about his partisan allegiances. In recent weeks, it was revealed that he booked a $30,000 holiday party at Trump’s hotel in Washington, D.C., accentuating the huge conflict of interest that the president’s refusal to recuse himself from his businesses has created.
This month, the Justice Department announced that it would be giving the department’s second highest honor, the Attorney General’s Award for Distinguished Service to the lawyer’s involved in supporting the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Typically, this award is given to DOJ employees who work on notable prosecutions — not play a role in a highly contentious and partisan confirmation process.
But perhaps the worst example of Barr’s legal advocacy for the president is a story that emerged this week: that the Department of Justice instructed the inspector general for the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) to not turn over a whistleblower report to Congress that, if media reports are to be believed, implicates the president in potential wrongdoing.
DOJ has no statutory authority to do this. There is no legal or statutory rationale for them to even be involved in this discussion. The DNI is required, by law, to turn over these materials. Not wanting to butt heads with the Justice Department, they are still refusing to do so.
This is the kind of thing that happens in a dictatorship, not a country with a democratically-elected leader.
It seems clear that Barr is stepping into a fight that doesn’t involve his department in order to shield the president from political embarrassment or the revelations of potentially impeachable offenses. This might seem like a quaint notion in the Era of Trump, but the Department of Justice’s mandate is to serve the American people and the rule of law, not the political and legal interests of the president. But under Barr’s leadership that notion has been reversed.
This is precisely what Trump has been demanding since the Spring of 2017 when then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions provoked his ire by recusing himself from the Russia investigation.
Trump railed against Sessions for, in effect, refusing to obstruct justice by failing to protect the president from the Russia investigation. As Trump said publicly, he wanted an Attorney General who would do his political and legal bidding — and in Barr he has found it.
The result is a Department of Justice that is perhaps the most partisan and corrupt in modern American history and is being led by an Attorney General who has put the president above the rule of law — and made him practically unaccountable for his actions. This is the kind of thing that happens in a dictatorship, not a country with a democratically-elected leader.