William Barr had returned to private life after his first stint as attorney general when he sat down to write an article for The Catholic Lawyer. It was 1995, and Mr. Barr saw an urgent threat to religion generally and to Catholicism, his faith, specifically. The danger came from the rise of “moral relativism,” in Mr. Barr’s view. “There are no objective standards of right and wrong,” he wrote. “Everyone writes their own rule book.”
And so, at first, it seemed surprising that Mr. Barr, now 69, would return after 26 years to the job of attorney general, to serve Donald Trump, the moral relativist in chief, who writes and rewrites the rule book at whim.
But a close reading of his speeches and writings shows that, for decades, he has taken a maximalist, Trumpian view of presidential power that critics have called the “imperial executive.” He was a match, all along, for a president under siege. “He alone is the executive branch,” Mr. Barr wrote of whoever occupies the Oval Office, in a memo to the Justice Department in 2018, before he returned.
Now, with news reports that his review into the origins of the Russian investigation that so enraged Mr. Trump has turned into a full-blown criminal investigation, Mr. Barr is arousing fears that he is using the enormous power of the Justice Department to help the president politically, subverting the independence of the nation’s top law enforcement agency in the process.
Why is he giving the benefit of his reputation, earned over many years in Washington, to this president? His Catholic Lawyer article suggests an answer to that question. The threat of moral relativism he saw then came when “secularists used law as a weapon.” Mr. Barr cited rules that compel landlords to rent to unmarried couples or require universities to treat “homosexual activist groups like any other student group.” He reprised the theme in a speech at Notre Dame this month.
Barr uses the same language and ideas in an article and speech separated by decades.
Article in The Catholic Lawyer, “Legal Issues in a New Political Order”
Highlighted text appears in both quotations
Remarks to the Law School and the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame
In 1995 and now, Mr. Barr has voiced the fears and aspirations of the conservative legal movement. By helping Mr. Trump, he’s protecting a president who has succeeded in confirming more than 150 judges to create a newly conservative judiciary. The federal bench now seems more prepared to lower barriers between church and state and reduce access to abortion — a procedure that Mr. Barr, in his 1995 article, included on a list of societal ills that also included drug addiction, venereal diseases and psychiatric disorders.
In his unruffled and lawyerly way, Mr. Barr emerged as the president’s most effective protector in the spring, when he limited damage from the special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election by shaping the public narrative of the Mueller report before he released any of it.
In his pursuit of investigating the investigators, he even traveled to Britain and Italy to meet with intelligence officials there to persuade them to help it along. Now it is possible the Justice Department could bring charges against its own officials and agents for decisions they made to investigate Trump campaign advisers in the fraught months around the 2016 election, when the Russian government was mounting what the Mueller report called “a sweeping and systematic” effort to interfere.
This criminal investigation seems ominous in the context of Mr. Barr’s other moves.
His Justice Department recently declined to investigate a whistle-blower’s complaint that the president was “using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election” and advised the acting director of national intelligence not to send the complaint to Congress. Last week, dozens of government inspectors general warned in a letter to the Justice Department that its position “could seriously undermine the critical role whistle blowers play in coming forward to report waste, fraud, abuse and misconduct across the federal government.”
So while Rudolph Giuliani is freelancing American diplomacy as the president’s personal lawyer, often leaving bedlam in his wake, and Mick Mulvaney flails as acting chief of staff, Mr. Barr has used the Justice Department, with precision, on the president’s behalf. The New York City Bar Association complained a few days ago that Mr. Barr “appears to view his primary obligation as loyalty to the president individually rather than to the nation.”
William Barr (Billy, when he was young) grew up in an apartment on Riverside Drive in Manhattan with a framed Barry Goldwater presidential campaign poster in the foyer, according to Vanity Fair. His mother, who was of Irish descent, taught at Columbia University. His father, a Jew who converted to Catholicism, taught at Columbia, too, and then became the headmaster of the elite Dalton School, leaving after 10 years amid criticism over his authoritarian approach to student discipline.
He went to high school at the equally elite Horace Mann and to college at Columbia, where he majored in government and then got a master’s degree in government and Chinese studies. Mr. Barr went to work for the C.I.A. in Washington in 1973 and attended George Washington University Law School at night.
He joined the Reagan White House in 1982, where he sought to curb regulation. After George H.W. Bush was elected president in 1988, he became director of the Office of Legal Counsel in the Justice Department, which provides legal advice to the president and all executive agencies.
It didn’t take long for Mr. Barr to express his views on executive power. He warned in one of his early opinions, in July 1989, of congressional “encroachments” on presidential authority. “Only by consistently and forcefully resisting such congressional incursions can executive branch prerogatives be preserved,” he wrote. Some of his Republican colleagues remember being taken aback.
“Bill’s view on the separation of powers was not overlapping authority keeping all branches in check, but keeping the other branches neutralized, leaving a robust executive power to rule. George III would have loved it,” said Douglas Kmiec, a law professor at Pepperdine who preceded Mr. Barr as head of the Office of Legal Counsel.
Mr. Barr also argued that the president had the “inherent authority” to order the F.B.I. to abduct people abroad, in violation of an international treaty principally written by the United States. This view reversed the position that the Office of Legal Counsel had taken nine years earlier. When Congress asked to see Mr. Barr’s opinion, he refused, even as the government defended the abduction of a man in Mexico accused of participating in the killing of a Drug Enforcement Administration agent. The charges against the man were dismissed. It took four years for his opinion to come to light.
“You have a secret opinion that violated the internal rules of the Justice Department” and “diminished America’s reputation as a country that operates by the rule of law,” said Harold Hongju Koh, a Yale law professor who worked in the Office of Legal Counsel and advised the State Department. “At the time, we thought that was as bad as it was going to get.”
After becoming deputy attorney general in 1990, he continued to push the limits on questions of presidential power. He told the first President Bush that he didn’t need congressional approval to invade Iraq. Mr. Bush asked for it anyway.
Mr. Barr, who took over the department in the fall of 1991, also urged Mr. Bush to pardon all six of the Reagan administration officials who faced criminal charges in an arms-for-hostages deal at the heart of the Iran-contra scandal. The president took his advice.
When Mr. Bush lost his bid for re-election, Mr. Barr went back into private practice before taking jobs as the general counsel first for GTE and then Verizon. He served on the boards of several religious groups, including the Catholic Information Center, a self-described “intellectual hub,” affiliated with the ultraconservative order Opus Dei.
Those groups include other conservative Washington insiders, such as Leonard Leo, the executive vice president of the Federalist Society. Mr. Leo has also served on the board of the Catholic Information Center and he came out strongly in favor of Mr. Trump’s nomination of Mr. Barr for attorney general.
In a sense, both Mr. Barr and Mr. Leo have found parallel ways to use the Trump administration as a vehicle for their causes. Mr. Leo has enormous influence from outside the government on the selection of judicial nominees. And from the inside, Mr. Barr plays a role in federal judicial appointments and has supported a Justice Department task force set up to look for cases of religious discrimination.
When Mr. Barr undercut the Mueller report, he lost some supporters. While delaying its release, he presented the conclusions as far less damning for President Trump than Mr. Mueller found them to be. (For example, Mr. Barr said that the special counsel did not find sufficient evidence of a crime when in fact Mr. Mueller had not exonerated Mr. Trump of wrongdoing.)
“Not in my memory has a sitting attorney general more diminished the credibility of his department on any subject,” wrote Benjamin Wittes, the editor in chief of Lawfare.
Despite criticism, Mr. Barr has continued to champion the presidency — and this president. But on Friday, a federal judge in Washington ruled against the Justice Department’s effort to block Congress from getting grand jury evidence obtained in the Mueller investigation. The department has also asked a federal judge to block a subpoena from the Manhattan district attorney for eight years of Mr. Trump’s personal and corporate tax returns.
“From my perspective,” Mr. Barr told Jan Crawford of CBS News in May, “the idea of resisting a democratically elected president and basically throwing everything at him and, you know, really changing the norms on the grounds that ‘we have to stop this president,’ that is where the shredding of our norms and our institutions is occurring.”
In other words, amazingly, it wasn’t President Trump, or Attorney General Barr, who was violating the norms of American governance. It was their critics.
Since Watergate, a crucial norm of Justice Department independence has prevented presidents from ordering or meddling in investigations for partisan reasons.
In 2001, Mr. Barr praised the first President Bush for leaving the Justice Department alone. Mr. Bush’s White House “appreciated the independence of Justice,” Mr. Barr said. “We didn’t lose sight of the fact that there’s a difference between being a government lawyer and representing an individual in his personal capacity in a criminal case.”
Now, Mr. Barr seems hard-pressed to maintain a semblance of those boundaries. The criminal investigation of the origins of the Russia investigation that he ordered is official government business. It’s headed by an experienced prosecutor, John H. Durham, the United States attorney for Connecticut, and it’s supposed to be on the up and up.
But when Mr. Barr told Congress in April that he thought “spying” on the Trump campaign by American intelligence agencies occurred — the F.B.I. director, Christopher Wray, told Congress that “spying” was “not the term I would use” — he echoed President Trump’s conspiracy theory of being a victim of the “deep state.” And in the last month, Mr. Barr has found his review mixed up with the machinations of Mr. Giuliani, who was directed by Mr. Trump to investigate the 2016 election and the Biden family in Ukraine.
Mr. Trump made the overlap explicit when he lumped Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Barr together in his July phone call with Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky. “I will have Mr. Giuliani give you a call and I am also going to have Attorney General Barr call,” Mr. Trump told Mr. Zelensky, according to notes released by the White House. Mr. Barr was reportedly “surprised and angry” by the president’s reference, and a Justice Department representative has denied he had any contacts with Mr. Zelensky.
Then, Mr. Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, brought up Mr. Barr’s review of the Russia investigation at his news conference on Oct. 17 in defense of Mr. Trump’s request to Mr. Zelensky for “a favor” and information. (“So you’re saying the president of the United States, the chief law enforcement person, cannot ask somebody to cooperate with an ongoing public investigation into wrongdoing?” Mr. Mulvaney asked.)
The White House’s use of the Justice Department as a shield in the Ukraine scandal risks leaving Mr. Barr’s review “hopelessly compromised,” tweeted the Harvard Law School professor Jack Goldsmith, an alumnus of the Office of Legal Counsel who has defended Mr. Barr.
And in blockbuster testimony before Congress last Tuesday, the top American diplomat in Ukraine, William Taylor, said that he and Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, who was conveying Mr. Trump’s orders concerning Ukraine, discussed the possibility that Ukraine’s prosecutor would make a public statement about “investigations, potentially in coordination with Attorney General Barr’s probe.” Either people in the president’s circle are using Mr. Barr as a pawn, or he’s in deeper than he has said.
Either way, maybe the lesson is the same one that applies throughout the administration: The fallout from the president’s maneuvering taints the people around him. The longer Mr. Barr stays in office, the more that Mr. Trump will look for the attorney general to do for him.
When Mr. Mueller closed up shop, he left several cases pending with the Justice Department,including charges against the Trump operative Roger Stone, which could end with disclosures at trial that damage the president (Mr. Stone has pleaded not guilty). What if Mr. Trump would rather make cases like these go away, with pardons or other inducements? Will Mr. Barr go along?
During the Bush administration, in a more moderate time, Mr. Barr worked for a buttoned-down president who called for a “kinder” and “gentler” strain of Republicanism. Now he has a boss who calls the impeachment process “a lynching,” Republican critics “human scum” and the news media “the enemy of the American people.”
As the buttons fly off, Mr. Barr still seems unperturbed. He’s the perfect attorney general for President Trump. Not so much, it seems, for the country.
U.S. Department of Justice
In 1989, at the beginning of his administration, President George H. W. Bush appointed Barr to the U.S. Department of Justice as Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), an office which functions as the legal advisor for the President and executive agencies. Barr was known as a strong defender of presidential power. He wrote an advisory opinion justifying the U.S. invasion of Panama and arrest of Manuel Noriega. He wrote legal justifications for the practice of rendition, so that the FBIcould enter onto foreign soil without the consent of the host government to apprehend fugitives wanted by the United States government for terrorism or drug-trafficking. Barr declined a congressional request for the full opinion, but instead provided a document that “summarizes the principal conclusions.” Congress subpoenaed the opinion, and its public release after Barr’s departure from the Justice Department showed he had omitted significant findings in the opinion from his summary document.
U.S. Attorney General (1991–1993)
First nomination and confirmation
It was reported that President Bush was impressed with Barr’s management of the hostage crisis; weeks later, Bush nominated him as Attorney General.
Barr’s two-day confirmation hearing was “unusually placid”, and he received a good reception from both Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Asked whether he thought a constitutional right to privacy included the right to an abortion, Barr responded that he believed the constitution was not originally intended to create a right to abortion; that Roe v. Wade was thus wrongly decided; and that abortion should be a “legitimate issue for state legislators“. “Barr also said at the hearings that Roe v. Wade was ‘the law of the land’ and claimed he did not have ‘fixed or settled views’ on abortion.” Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Joe Biden, though disagreeing with Barr, responded that it was the “first candid answer” he had heard from a nominee on a question that witnesses would normally evade; Biden hailed Barr as “a throwback to the days when we actually had attorneys general that would talk to you.” Barr was approved unanimously by the Senate Judiciary Committee, was confirmed by voice vote by the full Senate, and was sworn in as Attorney General on November 26, 1991.
During his first tenure as AG, media characterized Barr as staunchly conservative. However, Barr was widely respected by both Republicans and Democrats alike. In 1995, Joe Biden told Barr, “You were one of the best (attorney generals) I have ever worked with, and there have been a lot of attorneys general since I have been here, and I mean that sincerely.” He was described as affable with a dry, self-deprecating wit. The New York Times described the “central theme” of his tenure to be “his contention that violent crime can be reduced only by expanding Federal and state prisons to jail habitual violent offenders.” In an effort to prioritize violent crime Barr reassigned three hundred FBI agents from counterintelligence work to investigations of gang violence, which the New York Times called, “the largest single manpower shift in the bureau’s history.”
The Case for More Incarceration
In 1992, Barr authored a report, The Case for More Incarceration, which argued for an increase in the United States incarceration rate, the creation of a national program to construct more prisons, and the abolition of parole release. Barr argued that incarceration reduced crime, pointing to crime and incarceration rates in 1960, 1970, 1980 and 1990; a 1999 criminology study criticized Barr’s analysis, saying “so complex an issue as the relationship between crime and punishment cannot be addressed through so simplistic an analysis as a negative correlation between the two very aggregated time series of crime rates and incarceration rates.” University of Minnesota criminologist Michael Tonry said the data in Barr’s report was deceptively presented; if Barr had chosen five-year intervals, then the data would not have supported Barr’s argument, and if Barr had chosen to look at violent crime specifically (as opposed to all crimes as a category), then the data would not have supported his argument. Barr said in the report, “The benefits of increased incarceration would be enjoyed disproportionately by black Americans”. In the report, Barr approvingly quoted New Mexico Attorney General Hal Stratton, “I don’t know anyone that goes to prison on their first crime. By the time you go to prison, you are a pretty bad guy.” Barr’s report influenced the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which aimed to increase the incarceration rate.
.. Phone surveillance program
In 1992, Barr launched a surveillance program to gather records of innocent Americans’ international phone calls. The DOJ Inspector General concluded that this program was launched without a review of the legality of the program. According to USA Today, the program “provided a blueprint for far broader phone-data surveillance the government launched after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.”
In late 1992, Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh, who had been chosen to investigate the Iran–Contra affair, found documents in the possession of Reagan’s former defense secretary, Caspar Weinberger, which Walsh said was “evidence of a conspiracy among the highest-ranking Reagan Administration officials to lie to Congress and the American public.” Weinberger was set to stand trial on felony charges on January 5, 1993. His “indictment said Mr. Weinberger’s notes contradicted Mr. Bush’s assertions that he had only a fragmentary knowledge of the arms secretly sold to Iran in 1985 and 1986 in exchange for American hostages in Lebanon.” According to Walsh, then-president Bush might have been called as a witness.
On December 24, 1992, during his final month in office, Bush, on the advice of Barr, pardoned Weinberger, along with five other administration officials who had been found guilty on charges relating to the Iran–Contra affair. Barr was consulted extensively regarding the pardons, and especially advocated for pardoning Weinberger.
Walsh complained about the move insinuating that Bush on Barr’s advice had used the pardons to avoid testifying and stating that: “The Iran-contra cover-up, which has continued for more than six years, has now been completed.” In 2003, he wrote an account of the investigation in his book, Firewall: The Iran-Contra Conspiracy and Cover-Up.
Because of this and Barr’s unwillingness to appoint an independent counsel to look into a second scandal known as Iraqgate, New York Times writer William Safire began to refer to Barr as “Coverup-General Barr.” Barr, however, responded that he believed Bush had made the right decision regarding that and he felt people in the case had been treated unfairly. Barr said that Walsh was a “head-hunter” who “had completely lost perspective.”
.. In June 2018, Barr sent an unsolicited 20-page memo to senior Justice Department officials, and to members of Trump’s legal team, with some of whom he discussed the memo. In it he argued that the Special Counsel should not be investigating Trump for obstruction of justice because Trump’s actions, such as firing FBI Director James Comey, were within his powers as head of the executive branch. He characterized the obstruction investigation as “fatally misconceived.” The day after the existence of the memo became known, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said “our decisions are informed by our knowledge of the actual facts of the case, which Mr. Barr didn’t have.” Democrats later characterized the memo as Barr’s “job application” for the Attorney General position.
In May 2019, three months into his tenure as Attorney General, the Associated Press characterized Barr as a champion and advocate for Trump. Barr had enthusiastically supported Trump’s political agenda, misrepresented aspects of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s, repeated Trump’s talking point that those investigating Trump had engaged in “spying”, defied congressional subpoenas, and refused to give Congress an unredacted version of the Mueller report.
Under Barr’s leadership, the Justice Department changed its position on the Affordable Care Act(ACA). Previously the department took the position that the individual mandate provision was unconstitutional, but could be severed from the whole healthcare law. On March 25, the department updated its position to argue that the entire law is unconstitutional. On May 2, the department conducted a filing with the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit to nullify the entire law, arguing that the removal of the provision on individual mandate results in the entire law becoming unconstitutional. As of that day, President Donald Trump has promised to produce a replacement health insurance plan only after he wins reelection in 2020. If the ACA is nullified, over 20 million Americans risk losing their health insurance.
At a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 1, 2019, Barr was asked by Senator Kamala Harris: “Has the president or anyone at the White House ever asked or suggested that you open an investigation of anyone?” Barr hesitated, asked her to repeat the question, and finally indicated he was unsure of what ‘suggested’ meant, saying “there have been discussions of matters out there, they have not asked me to open an investigation … I wouldn’t say suggest.” When Harris asked, “Hinted? Inferred?” Barr replied: “I don’t know.”
In early June the House Oversight Committee moved to hold Barr in contempt of congress for defying a subpoena regarding information about efforts to add a citizenship question to the 2020 US Census. Two days after the 75th anniversary of D-Day, Barr likened his own experience at the Justice Department to the experience of the paratroopers who had shoot into Sainte-Mère-Église on D-Day.
Mueller investigation and report
On January 14, 2019, a day before Barr’s confirmation hearing for Attorney General, Barr sent written testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding the eventual final Mueller report, saying “it is very important that the public and Congress be informed of the results of the special counsel’s work … For that reason, my goal will be to provide as much transparency as I can consistent with the law.”
The Department of Justice released a redacted version of the special counsel’s report in the morning of April 18, 2019. After the release of the full report, fact-checkers and news outlets characterized Barr’s initial letter as a deliberate mischaracterization of the Mueller Report and its conclusions. The New York Times reported instances in which the Barr letter omitted information and quoted sentence fragments out of context in ways that significantly altered the Mueller findings, including:
- A sentence fragment described only one possible motive for Trump to obstruct justice, while the Mueller report listed other possible motives
- Omission of words and a full sentence that twice suggested there was knowing and complicit behavior between the Trump campaign and Russians that stopped short of coordination
- Omission of language that indicated Trump could be subject to indictment after leaving office, to suggest that Trump was cleared in full
According to the Associated Press, Barr misrepresented the report in several ways, saying the report
- gave no indication that Congress could make a determination on obstruction of justice (the report specifically stated “that Congress may apply obstruction laws”) and that
- “these reports are not supposed to be made public” (when DOJ regulations give the AG wide authority in releasing reports such as this one). Barr
- falsely claimed in his summary of the report that “the White House fully cooperated with the Special Counsel’s investigation.” The Washington Post fact-checker described Barr’s claim as “astonishing” and PolitiFact said it was “false.” In actuality, Trump
- declined to grant the Special Counsel an in-person interview, and the
- Special Counsel report characterized Trump’s written responses to interview questions as “inadequate“.The report also
- documented numerous instances where Trump tried to either impede or end the Special Counsel investigation, analyzing each in terms of the three factors necessary for a criminal charge of obstruction.[not in citations given]
During a press conference, Barr said Mueller’s report contained “substantial evidence” that Trump was “frustrated and angered” because of his belief that the “investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents, and fueled by illegal leaks”; however, the report gave no indication that Trump’s frustrations with the investigation would mitigate obstructing behavior. Barr also said it would not be criminal obstruction of justice for a president to instruct a staffer to lie to investigators about the president’s actions, and suggested a president could legally terminate an investigation into himself if he was being “falsely accused”.
The Justice Department took the position that disclosure of the unredacted Mueller Report would require the department to violate “the law, court rules and court orders” as well as grand jury secrecy rules.
During May 1, 2019 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Barr stated he accepted Mueller’s interpretation of the law that was applied in the Report. However, in a May 30 CBS News interview, Barr stated that he had applied his own interpretation of the law and took the position that obstruction laws cannot apply to presidents who abuse their official powers to impede an investigation for a corrupt reason. Barr elaborated: “As a matter of law…we didn’t agree with the legal analysis – a lot of the legal analysis in the report. It did not reflect the views of the department”.
In a 1995 article for The Catholic Lawyer, Barr stated that the American government is “predicated precisely” on the Judeo-Christian system.:3 Barr grapples with the challenge of representing Catholicism “in an increasingly militant, secular age.”:1 Barr asserts that there are three ways secularists use “law as a legal weapon.”:8
- The first method is through elimination of traditional moral norms through legislation and litigation; Barr cites the elimination of the barriers to divorce and the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade as examples of this method.:8
- The second is the promotion of moral relativism through the passage of laws that dissolve moral consensus and enforce neutrality.:8 Barr draws attention to a 1987 case, Gay Rights Coalition v. Georgetown University, which “compel[s] Georgetown University to treat homosexual activist groups like any other student group.”:9
- The third method is the use of law directly against religion; as an example of this method, Barr cites efforts to use the Establishment Clause to exclude religiously motivated citizens from the public square.:9 Concluding, Barr states the need to “restructure education and take advantage of existing tax deductions for charitable institutions to promote Catholic education.”:12
Barr is an avid bagpiper. He began playing at age eight and has performed competitively in Scotland with a major American pipe band. At one time, Barr was a member of the City of Washington Pipe Band.
There is only one rational explanation for this performance. Mueller wants Congress and the public to presume that if it were not for the OLC guidance, it is very likely that he would have charged the president with obstruction — maybe not an absolute certainty, but nearly so.
And then, just in case we were too dense to understand the nods and winks, Mueller took pains to emphasize that, in our constitutional system, it is up to Congress, not federal prosecutors, to address alleged misconduct by a sitting president.
Simple as 1 + 1 + 1 = 3. Likely felony obstruction, plus inability of prosecutors to indict, plus duty of Congress to deal with presidential criminality, equals: Impeachment is the only remedy, unless congressional Democrats are saying that Donald Trump is above the law. (Good luck, Speaker Pelosi, trying to pipe down your AOC wing, to say nothing of the 2020 primary contestants, after that one.)
This should not be a surprise. We have been saying since shortly after Mueller was appointed that his investigation was not a collusion probe but an obstruction probe, and that this necessarily made it an impeachment probe.
Competing Views of Obstruction
As noted above, the apparent contradiction between Mueller and Barr is clarified by the timeline.
To grasp this, you must first understand that Mueller and his staff are completely result-oriented. If you’ve decided to act as counsel to a congressional impeachment inquiry rather than as a federal prosecutor, the objective is to get your evidence in front of Congress, with the patina of felony obstruction.
In the Nixon and Clinton situations, the rationale for impeachment was obstruction of justice. Significantly, the issue in impeachment cases is abuse of power, not courtroom guilt. Consequently, unlike a prosecutor, a counsel to a congressional impeachment committee does not need evidence strong enough to support a criminal indictment; just something reasonably close to that, enough to enable a president’s congressional opposition to find unfitness for high office.
Once you understand that, it is easy to see what happened here.
Mueller’s staff, chockablock with progressive activists, has conceptions of executive power and obstruction that are saliently different from Barr’s (and from those of conservative legal analysts who subscribe to Justice Scalia’s views on unitary executive power).
The attorney general didn’t want to serve Donald Trump. But he did want to fight for a theory of presidential power.
After his combative news conference moments before the release of the Mueller report, one GOP operative wished aloud that Trump would drop Vice President Mike Pence from the ticket in 2020 and add Barr instead. Other prominent Republicans speak of him in almost adulatory terms. “Barr is the closest thing we have to [former Vice President Dick] Cheney,” said Chuck Cooper, a conservative litigator and Barr ally who, like the attorney general, has led the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. “He’s a man. He has a very strong sense of purpose and confidence.”
.. But people who know Barr and have tracked his career for years say the story is more complicated. Trump and Barr barely have a personal relationship, according to White House aides. Barr may have donated $2,700 to Trump in the 2016 general election, but only after he threw $55,000 to Jeb Bush in the primaries. They say that it’s not Donald Trump whom Barr is fighting for, but a vision of the presidency.
.. Advocates for the “unitary executive”
Barr’s first interaction with the Trump White House came in the spring of 2017 when he met with Pence to talk about representing him in the Mueller probe. Barr waved off the offer, instead recommending a handful of friends to do the job. About a year later, when the president’s children were unhappy with Trump’s legal representation, Barr got another phone call — and turned down another offer, this one to join the president’s personal legal team.
In late 2018, when the White House was on the hunt for a new attorney general, Barr might as well have been on speed dial. He is a longtime friend of White House counsel Pat Cipollone, who worked for him at the Department of Justice in the 1990s and who pressed him to take the job. Again, Barr begged off, urging the White House to consider his friend J. Michael Luttig, a former federal appeals court judge — or former Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl — or his Kirkland & Ellis partner Mark Filip.
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.
The Trump era has been no different. Cullen represents Pence in the Russia probe. Cooper represents former Attorney General Jeff Sessions. And Luttig was the runner-up for the attorney general post when Trump tapped Barr in December, according to multiple sources.
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.
Barr made his first imprint in this battle as head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel in the George H.W. Bush administration, when he authored a controversial memo giving the FBI the right to seize fugitives abroad without the consent of the foreign government in question. As deputy attorney general, he told George H.W. Bush he had the power to send U.S. military forces into Iraq without congressional authorization.
.. Conservative heroes from Robert Bork to the late Justice Antonin Scalia have been advocates of this theory. Bork carried out President Richard M. Nixon’s directive, in the midst of the Watergate scandal, to fire independent special prosecutor Archibald Cox because he determined the president had the right to do so. Scalia, in a 1988 dissenting opinion, argued that the president had the power to fire any executive branch official, including an independent counsel.
“A lot of The Federalist Society heroes are people who participated in or were advocates for the unitary executive,” said University of California law professor John Yoo, himself a proponent of the theory, which became a flash point in the George W. Bush administration after Yoo penned memos advising Bush that the Constitution grants the president virtually unlimited authority to use force abroad and justifies the warrantless wiretapping of American citizens.
Enter Bill Barr. Before he agreed to take the attorney general job, he drew on the unitary executive theory in the 18-page memo he sent to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein last June — a document his critics say amounted to a veiled application for his current job. In that memo, Barr argued that obstruction of justice is limited to things like witness tampering and destroying evidence and that the president has “complete authority to start or stop a law enforcement proceeding.” The implication: Trump was acting on firm constitutional ground when he fired FBI director James Comey, regardless of his motivation, and that doing so was not an effort to obstruct justice. Neither were Trump’s subsequent, but thwarted, moves to fire Mueller himself.
Described by his friends as supremely confident in his views, Barr said at his confirmation hearing that he had circulated the memo widely “so that other lawyers would have the benefit of my views.”
“This captures Bill Barr perfectly,” Luttig said. “He has stayed active in Washington his entire life, he knows everyone and everyone knows him, he reaches out regularly to tell people what he is thinking about the issues of the day — and what he thinks of what they’re doing and, yes, what they need to be doing differently! And they love it.”
A lifelong conservative raised by Roman Catholic educators — his father was a professor of English literature at Columbia University, his future alma mater — Barr, was 10 at the time of John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign. But he has told friends he resisted Camelot’s allure. “He claims the nuns washed his mouth out with soap,” Cullen said.
Barr’s critics argue not only that he has a fringe interpretation of the law, but that far from even-handedly applying it, he’s gone out of his way to protect the president. “You can be the President’s defense attorney or America’s Attorney General, but you can’t be both,” Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) said in mid-April, as part of a call for Barr’s resignation. Other liberal critics have argued for his impeachment.
These critics say that presidents cannot and should not oversee, interfere with or direct investigations. “The most important function of the Department of Justice is to protect the independence of the prosecutorial function and the criminal justice system from political entanglement,” said Joyce Vance, a former federal prosecutor who worked under Barr at the Justice Department during the George H.W. Bush administration. Vance argued in a December op-ed that Barr’s memo disqualified him from serving as attorney general.
“It’s easier for people who’ve never been in the Justice Department to take this unitary executive point of view,” Vance added. “But for anybody who’s been inside of the Justice Department for even five seconds, you understand that one of the most important things that you do is to protect the criminal prosecutorial power from political influence.”
Parrying with the press
Barr’s decision to convene a news conference on the Mueller report before it was released to the public and his statements during the 21-minute event turned him into a villain on the left and a subject of broad admiration on the right.
Democrats say that Barr didn’t just mischaracterize the report’s findings, using the president’s preferred word, “collusion,” rather than the more legally accurate “criminal conspiracy” but labored to explain Trump’s illicit behavior, describing him as “frustrated and angered by his sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency.” Barr was acting as “as if he’s the personal attorney and publicist of the President of the United States,” declared Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D.-Mass).
“Excusing the president taking obstructive acts by saying that he was frustrated — every person who commits obstruction of justice is frustrated,” said Matt Miller, who served as spokesman for Attorney General Eric Holder. “The person that Republicans told us would be strong enough to stand up to the president is the one person who is actually behaving the way the president has always wanted his attorney general to behave.”
Republicans have seen something different unfolding. They relish Barr’s willingness and ability to thrust and parry with the news media — something other Trump Cabinet secretaries have gone out of their way to avoid for fear of overshadowing the president or taking a misstep that might sit wrong with him and cost them their job.
During his pre-Mueller report news conference Barr interrupted a reporter who questioned why Mueller wasn’t present for the release of “his” report only for Barr to interject, “No, it’s not, it’s a report that he did for me as the attorney general. … I’m here to discuss my response to that report and my decision, entirely discretionary, to make it public since these reports are not supposed to be made public.”
Pressed on whether it was inappropriate to come out and “spin” the report before it was made public, Barr offered a terse response: “No.”
Barr’s allies argue that Democrats are upset only over Barr’s decision not to prosecute the president. “The left is savaging Barr only because Barr is not savaging Trump,” Cooper said. A Wall Street Journal editorial titled “Targeting Bill Barr,” argued that Barr “will be hammered no matter what he decides. The good news is that the country finally appears to have an Attorney General who can take the heat.”
He will have to. Reports Tuesday evening indicating that Mueller wrote a letter to Barr protesting his characterization of the report’s conclusions reignited calls for Barr’s resignation or impeachment.
But many conservatives think it will take more than that to damage Trump’s improbable defender.
“Barr step down?” Sol Wisenberg, a former deputy on Kenneth Starr’s independent counsel investigation into President Bill Clinton, told POLITICO on Tuesday. “Are you fucking insane?”
Last week, Attorney General William P. Barr testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee on his apparent attempt to whitewash special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s findings, particularly those related to potential obstruction of justice by President Trump. In the course of his defense, Barr said, “We have to stop using the criminal justice process as a political weapon.”
His statement echoed language that President George H.W. Bush used when announcing a controversial pardon in the final weeks of his presidency — after consultation with Barr, who was serving his first stint as attorney general. These statements make plain Barr’s view that prosecutorial investigations of executive officials are inherently partisan and, therefore, illegitimate under the rule of law. But this idea calls into question one of the central principles of the American constitutional system: executive accountability.
In Federalist 70, Alexander Hamilton trumpets the advantages of a unitary executive, that is, the notion that all executive branch authority rests with the president, rather than being divided up among different executive officers, as states such as Texas and New York do.
One of Hamilton’s central arguments was that a unitary executive increases accountability: The buck stops with the president. In a divided executive, it could be unclear whether the president or another executive officer should be held to account for unpopular, unscrupulous or unlawful actions. By making the president accountable for all such action, the people will know how to vote in future elections.
Notably, Hamilton’s ideas on accountability extend beyond the president paying at the ballot box for unpopular action. In Federalist 65, he clearly states that a president impeached for misconduct is also “liable to prosecution and punishment in the ordinary course of law.” In other words, the presidency was not designed to be free from prosecutorial inquiry.
Holding the president and other, subordinate executive branch officials to account was central to our constitutional design and the rule of law, part of the delicate compromise between those at the constitutional convention who wanted a weak executive and those who wanted a strong one.
Hamilton’s reasoning on executive accountability has featured prominently in the development of the concept over time. For example, the United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Clinton v. Jones that the president is not immune from civil litigation due to the constitutional mandate of executive accountability. Indeed, such accountability was not only allowed, but may well have been necessary to protect the rule of law.
Barr, however, rejects this notion — and did so long before Donald Trump entered the political arena. On Christmas Eve 1992, Bush issued a pardon to former secretary of defense Caspar Weinberger for his role in the Iran-contra affair during the Reagan administration. In violation of U.S. law, Weinberger had allegedly facilitated the sale of American missiles to Iran to help fund the contras in Nicaragua. An independent counsel was appointed to investigate the scandal and a grand jury brought indictments on two counts of perjury and one count of obstructing justice. Weinberger protested the fairness of the indictments, but the evidence of wrongdoing was substantial. (Bush, who was vice president during the Iran-contra affair, was implicated but ultimately not indicted.)
When Bush explained his rationale for the pardon, he did not contest Weinberger’s likely guilt. Instead he praised Weinberger’s long record of service to the nation and his role in bringing down the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union.
Bush went further, though, not resting on Weinberger’s meritorious service alone. He pivoted to attack the prosecutions — 14 people associated with the Reagan administration were indicted, and 11 convicted — themselves as inconsistent with law’s necessary neutrality. Bush argued that the prosecutions represented “the criminalization of policy differences” and that “[t]hese differences should be addressed in the political arena, without the Damocles sword of criminality hanging over the heads of the combatants.” Reports at the time indicated that Bush worked closely on the pardon with Barr, which is unsurprising given the views Barr espoused last week.
Indeed, when reading this pardon in conjunction with Barr’s testimony, it’s clear that Barr holds a narrow understanding of executive accountability. In both the cases of Weinberger and Trump, prosecutors statutorily shielded from partisan influences found substantial evidence that the figure in question obstructed justice.
Yet because the targets of the investigations were political actors and, ostensibly, the opposition party would benefit from a successful prosecution of them, Barr considers any such prosecution inherently partisan and ill-suited for the courts. In other words, any attempt to investigate whether presidential action was unlawful must be partisan and, therefore, is inappropriate for nonpartisan legal institutions. Instead, as Bush identified in the Weinberger pardon, “the proper forum” for executive accountability was the “voting booth, not the courtroom.”
But this essentially gives the president (and other executive officials) a blank check: Unless misconduct rises to the level of impeachment, or if the partisan realities in Congress render impeachment an impossibility, the president is essentially immune from sanction for breaking the law, at least until leaving office.
This is not how Hamilton and his fellow Founders envisioned the system working. Worried about an out-of-control executive, they aimed to create checks and balances — and accountability. Checks and balances and the rule of law are not just formal institutional arrangements, they are norms of governance that invigorate principles central to the American system of government. Accountability is even more crucial in 2019 than it was in 1787, given how much more power the president wields today than in the 18th and 19th centuries.
When an ideology like Barr’s undermines those norms, the system of accountability carefully crafted by Hamilton and his fellow Founders and developed over two centuries threatens to become unbalanced. The result is a president unmoored from the norms that tether the executive to lawful behavior. That risks the entire American constitutional structure crashing down, as the president asserts himself with little to fear until at least the next election. While executive power has advanced steadily throughout the 20th century, what Barr envisions would be another leap, putting the United States on dangerous ground. It is not too much to ask our presidents not to violate the law. And when they fail to meet that standard, the consequences should be swift and assured.
On Attorney General William Barr’s testimony and the coming constitutional crisis.
In the first year of the Trump Presidency, White House advisers often promised reporters that this would be the week when they would unveil Trump’s plans for a massive investment in American infrastructure. On the campaign trail, Donald Trump had vowed to spend a trillion dollars rebuilding roads, bridges, and airports. He said that he would work with Democrats to do it. For a time, it seemed to be the only bipartisan project that might actually go somewhere. But, of course, Infrastructure Week never happened. There was always some distraction, some P.R. disaster that overwhelmed it—a chief of staff to be fired, an errant tweet upending foreign policy. Infrastructure Week lived on as an Internet meme, a Twitter hashtag, a joke; it became shorthand for the Administration’s inability to stay on message or organize itself to promote a legislative agenda it claimed to support.
Trump never fully gave up on the infrastructure idea, though, and this week he resurrected it in a rare meeting with congressional Democratic leaders, who emerged from the White House on Tuesday morning, smiling and apparently excited. The President, they explained, had decided to double the price tag of his proposal, from a trillion to two trillion dollars, because it sounded more impressive. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, to whom the President reportedly offered Tic Tacs at the meeting in a friendly gesture, praised his vision for a “big and bold” plan. The meeting, Senator Chuck Schumer added, had been a “very, very good start.”
But it was all just a form of Washington performance art. There are no Republican votes for such an expensive package, as the Democrats well knew, and there is no way that the President’s allies on Capitol Hill, nor his own penny-pinching White House chief of staff, would agree to such a budget-busting deal. Trump’s “extreme and aspirational” idea, as Senator Kevin Cramer, of North Dakota, put it, had Republicans “rolling their eyes,” Politico reported. The ranking member of the House committee that would have to approve any measure had offered a simple answer to the question of whether Trump’s idea could ever be passed. “No,” he said. It would not be Infrastructure Week, or even Infrastructure Day. The new era of bipartisan dealmaking was over before it began.
For his part, Barr, once again, acted more as the President’s defense lawyer than as his Attorney General. Taking a maximalist position on Presidential power, Barr argued that Trump would be well within his rights to shut down any investigation of himself if he believed it to be unfair. Surely, that statement will go down as one of the most extraordinary claims of executive authority since Richard Nixon said that “when the President does it, that means it’s not illegal.” Throughout his appearance, Barr continued to assert that Trump had been cleared of all wrongdoing by the Mueller investigation, while admitting, under questioning by Senator Kamala Harris, that he and his deputy had not actually looked at the underlying evidence of Presidential obstruction assembled by Mueller before determining that it was not sufficient to warrant charges. Barr also said that Trump directing his then White House counsel to fire the special counsel—a key incident in the Mueller report—was not a big deal because Trump was actually ordering that Mueller be replaced, which, Barr contended, is not the same thing as ordering him fired. His client, not surprisingly, was pleased. “A source familiar with Trump’s thinking said the President thought Barr was great and did an excellent job,” Axios reported.
In the spring of 2001, Bill Barr, the former attorney general under George H.W. Bush who has now been tapped to resume that role under Donald Trump, sat for an oral history interview sponsored by the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. The transcript is fascinating reading on many issues, such as Barr’s explanation of his reluctant support for now-Justice Sonia Sotomayor for her original district court appointment, his argument for “massive retaliation against Libyan military intelligence targets” after the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 was attributed to the Libyans and his belief that the “issue of the role of the Department of Justice versus the national security apparatus in terrorist situations … hasn’t been thought through.” But here I’d like to focus on his account of the clash between Congress and the president over war powers.
Barr’s narrative picks up at the time when President H.W. Bush already had deployed half a million troops to Saudi Arabia (Operation Desert Shield), but prior to the invasion to evict Iraq from occupied Kuwait (Operation Desert Storm). Barr had been head of the Office of Legal Counsel previously, and now was the deputy attorney general. With Attorney General Dick Thornburgh unavailable at a particular moment in time and given Barr’s extensive experience with national security legal issues, Barr explained, he naturally became a key participant in discussions regarding whether the president should seek from Congress a formal authorization (or at least some form of endorsement) to use force against Iraq:
We knew the issue would eventually come, and the president would need some advice on the parameters of his power. First, I believed that the president did not require any authorization from Congress, and I believed that the president had constitutional authority to launch an attack against the Iraqis. … He didn’t put 500,000 troops over there for them to sit there, and there was no doubt in my mind that he was going to go on the offensive unless the Iraqis withdrew unilaterally. So I figured at some point I’d be asked my opinion on this. Then, before I knew it, I got this call that there was going to be a meeting over in the Cabinet Room to discuss the legal issues surrounding the operations in the Gulf.
…[W]hen I was leaving my office, Senator [William S.] Cohen was on the floor, a Republican purportedly, giving this speech saying that if any lawyer ever advised the president that he had the authority—because this was really being debated at the time, and there were op-ed pieces and so forth—if any lawyer told the president that he had authority to unilaterally attack the Iraqis, then that lawyer would be impeached. I was putting on my jacket listening to this going over to the meeting.
…The president said, Bill … I’ve been reading these articles. This op-ed piece the other day said I don’t have the authority to launch an attack on the Iraqis. What’s your view, what’s the Justice Department’s view on whether I have the authority? …
I said, Mr. President, there’s no doubt that you have the authority to launch an attack. I explained why I thought he did under the Constitution as commander-in-chief, and I gave him some different theories.
At this point in the narrative, things are relatively simple. Barr had made clear his view that the president’s inherent authority under Article II included the authority to initiate a large-scale, combined-arms operation involving massive ground forces, without need of congressional authorization in the form of an authorization for the use of military force or otherwise. But he also went on to express a back-up theory—one that he labeled a “bootstrap argument”—in the event that this first theory did not persuade. Here is Barr’s account of the bootstrap argument for presidential war powers:
…I gave him a secondary theory—which I was sort of proud of at the time, it was a bootstrap argument. I said, Now another reason here, Mr. President, is—even for the critics who would say that that wasn’t true—there’s no doubt that you have the authority to put 500,000 troops in the field. Congress authorized—through the approval of the U.N. whatever they are, resolutions, and through their authorization and all that stuff, Congress has definitely approved you putting 500,000 troops over there face-to-face with the Iraqi Army.
We have intelligence that they have weapons of mass destruction—chemical weapons, biological weapons—and your job as commander-in-chief is to make sure those troops are not preemptively attacked. If you feel as commander-in-chief that in order to protect your army in the field you have to launch first, you absolutely can do that. Which I thought was an ingenious argument, [redacted].
Let’s unpack that a bit. The argument proceeds in two steps. First, does the president have authority to deploy armed forces in non-combat capacities? Barr argued that Bush certainly had authority to go that far, and Barr reinforced that conclusion as to this particular instance by pointing out that there was little doubt Congress approved Operation Desert Shield. But this left open the question of whether it somehow followed that Bush also could order that deployed force, without congressional authorization, to initiate hostilities with Iraq. That brings us to the secondstep: By citing the risk that forces deployed in Saudi Arabia might be attacked preemptively by Iraq (by chemical or biological weapons no less), Barr concluded that Bush had available the option of initiating hostilities in the form of anticipatory or preemptive self-defense. Thus the bootstrap metaphor: The authority to attack the Iraqi military could be derived from the need to preemptively defend the deployed forces.
Notably, Barr paused at this point in his advice to the president in order to encourage him to obtain congressional support if possible, recognizing that this would put the president in the strongest position possible. But he also recognized that congressional debate on this subject would introduce the shadow of Justice Robert Jackson’s “tripartite framework” from Youngstown (Steel Seizure):
I said, However, Mr. President, even though you have the power to do this unilaterally, without any consultation with Congress or what have you, you certainly would be in a better position, the strongest possible position, if Congress did pass a resolution. It would not be the law. It wouldn’t be a statute authorizing you to do it, but a resolution supporting what you did.
The reason I say that is because on the Hill at that point they were actually talking about passing a resolution that said the opposite, that he could not use force unless he got their approval. There were some in the administration who were saying, Just let them do it, screw them, ignore them, and let them pass whatever they want.
I said, I think it’s better to get up there and engage, to get up there and see if we can head off that kind of resolution and, in fact, get a resolution in support of it.
President Bush, wisely, anticipated the potential Youngstown problem that might follow:
He said, Well, suppose they pass a resolution saying I cannot do it. What impact does that have?
Barr’s response was nuanced: “I said, It’s irrelevant. It’s not a statute. It’s just an expression of opinion. They can’t change the Constitution by expressing their opinion on the matter. I would say you could still do it.…”
This gets to a very important question, one that senators should explore during the confirmation hearings: Does Barr believe not only that the president has inherent authority to initiate large-scale hostilities (whether directly as in his primary argument above, or via a boostrapped-defense claim as in his fall-back argument), but also that the president can do so even when Congress purports to direct otherwise?
Critically, the answer Barr gave to Bush does not compel the conclusion that Barr believes the commander-in-chief can override a statute. He was careful to frame his answer to President Bush in terms of a hypothetical in which Congress is considering a mere concurrent resolution (that is, something passed by both houses but not presented to the president for signature and not of statutory nature). Barr seems to have been saying that a negative concurring resolution can indeed be overridden—that is, that the president in that type of lowest-ebb scenario would yet prevail on the war powers question. But it does not follow that Barr would take the same view if the congressional opposition took the form of an actual statute (including a proper joint resolution), particularly one leveraging the spending power. Indeed, it is quite possible Barr (like John Yoo) would accept the power of Congress to constrain the commander-in-chief at least via the spending power, so long as the congressional action managed to rise to the statutory level.
In the end, of course, these questions were moot as to what became Operation Desert Storm:
And [Dick] Cheney said, You’re giving him political advice, not legal advice. I said, No, I’m giving him both political and legal advice. They’re really sort of together when you get to this level. Then there was a debate as to whether he should get up on the Hill and push. I was saying he should, and Boyden Gray was saying he should. There were others who were opposed. Eventually he made the decision after that meeting that he would. The White House went full-bore on that vote and got the vote turned around, and then ultimately won the vote. That was an interesting experience. I enjoyed that.
I’ll close by noting what should be obvious from those who have followed these arguments over the past decade. The most common war powers dispute in recent years has been not the question of unilateral authority to engage in large-scale ground operations, but rather unilateral authority to engage in airstrike-focused operations that rely on allies for the ground component—giving rise to the notion, embodied by Obama’s 2011 Libya campaign, that the “war powers” debate is not actually even implicated in the first place in such cases. I think it’s safe to assume that Bill Barr would accept that reading of the president’s authority as well.