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.
Of Course the Christian Right Supports Trump
Paul Weyrich: “What caused the movement to surface was the federal government’s moves against Christian schools. This absolutely shattered the Christian community’s notions that Christians could isolate themselves inside their own institutions and teach what they please.”
.. In 1980, the nascent religious right overwhelmingly supported Ronald Reagan, a former movie star who would become America’s first divorced president, over the evangelical Carter. In doing so, it helped destigmatize divorce. “Up until 1980, anybody who was divorced, let alone divorced and remarried, very likely would have been kicked out of evangelical congregations,” Balmer, who was raised evangelical and is now a scholar of evangelicalism, told me.
.. This week, Tony Perkins, leader of the Family Research Council, told Politico that Trump gets a “mulligan,” or do-over, on his past moral transgressions, because he’s willing to stand up to the religious right’s enemies. Evangelicals, Perkins said, “were tired of being kicked around by Barack Obama and his leftists. And I think they are finally glad that there’s somebody on the playground that is willing to punch the bully.”
.. On Wednesday, Jerry Falwell Jr., who inherited his father’s job as head of the evangelical Liberty University, defended Trump on CNN through an acrobatic act of moral relativism.
“Jesus said that if you lust after a woman in your heart, it’s the same as committing adultery,” Falwell said. “You’re just as bad as the person who has, and that’s why our whole faith is based around the idea that we’re all equally bad, we’re all sinners.” To defend Trump, Falwell seems to be taking the position that no Christian has the right to criticize anyone else’s sexual behavior.
.. Michael Gerson writes in The Washington Post, are “associating evangelicalism with bigotry, selfishness and deception. They are playing a grubby political game for the highest of stakes: the reputation of their faith.”
.. I sympathize with his distress. But the politicized sectors of conservative evangelicalism have been associated with bigotry, selfishness and deception for a long time. Trump has simply revealed the movement’s priorities. It values the preservation of traditional racial and sexual hierarchies over fuzzier notions of wholesomeness.
.. “I’ve resisted throughout my career the notion that evangelicals are racist, I really have,” Balmer told me. “But I think the 2016 election demonstrated that the religious right was circling back to the founding principles of the movement. What happened in 2016 is that the religious right dropped all pretense that theirs was a movement about family values.”
.. This is one reason I find it hard to take seriously religious conservatives who say they are being persecuted for their defense of traditional marriage. People who are sympathetic to Christian, conservative Trump supporters — even if they don’t support Trump themselves — will say that they’ve been backed into a corner by the expansion of civil rights laws and policies protecting gay people. As they see it, liberals not only won the culture war on gay marriage but now are also demanding that private redoubts of resistance be brought into line.
.. Rod Dreher, a social-conservative Trump critic, wrote, “Post-Obergefell, Christians who hold to the biblical teaching about sex and marriage have the same status in culture, and increasingly in law, as racists.”
.. But it seems absurd to ask secular people to respect the religious right’s beliefs about sex and marriage — and thus tolerate a degree of anti-gay discrimination — while the movement’s leaders treat their own sexual standards as flexible and conditional. Christian conservatives may believe strongly in their own righteousness. But from the outside, it looks as if their movement was never really about morality at all.
This Theologically Orphaned Generation
I don’t remember any of the churches I grew up in going overboard on the nationalistic fervor, even during the chilliest years of the latter stages of the Cold War
.. We were schooled on the importance of the Christian worldview—in opposition to postmodernism and other philosophical evils. Our teachers typically weren’t well-versed in philosophy, but they warned us zealously against moral relativism, situational ethics, and hypocrisy.
.. I was scared into the kingdom by one of those late-’70s “Left Behind” films. Nothing could be more important than to stand for the truth, even in the face of the anti-Christ’s persecution.
.. We ate apologetics books like communion wafers—and were about as nourished. What we learned was to argue, to corner our opponents in their intellectually unfurnished corners, defeating them with our theistic strength and consistency.
.. Because the pursuit of relevancy is the pursuit of influence, of power. And when power becomes your god, you’ll do as much biblical gymnastics as it takes to get it or keep it.
.. The younger generation now is basically a bunch of theological orphans
.. The opening dialogue is something I see reflected almost every day now in comment threads, news articles, and from friends and family on social media. Not about Democrats, though. Heavens, no. Democrats are still obliged to keep good character, and in fact, they cannot, as their very platform precludes it. Conservatives, however, may do as they like. Say what they want. Get away with almost anything. So long as their platform reads right.
.. A new poll in fact shows that white evangelicals are now the most likely constituency to believe “an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life.” This is up from 30 percent in 2011 to a whopping 72 percent this year. And this is not because evangelicals suddenly decided to show some grace to politicians, because you don’t see this kind of consideration given to political opponents. There is really only one main explanation for this sizable jump in 2017 in the ability to look the other way. Ethics kinda seem situational all of a sudden.
We’ve been abandoned by our teachers. Our guides have left us without fathers. The men and women we looked up to have gone against everything they told us to believe in. We wonder if they ever really believed it themselves.
.. They are listening to more non-white evangelicals, because those folks have learned how to persevere from the margins for centuries.
.. These youngsters who have rejected your
- idolatrous politics, your
- nationalistic faith, your
- moral subjectivity, your
- fear of the alien and the stranger, your
gospel neglect will finally do you proud when they inherit your churches. If they can keep their heads on straight.
The issue that is — unfortunately — uniting Americans on the left and the right
Some of the tenured class that sets the intellectual tone of the left concluded long ago that America was built by oppression, is sustained by white privilege and requires the cleansing purity of social revolution (however that is defined). In this story, capitalism accumulates inequities that will eventually lead the rich to eat the poor. The American Dream is an exploitative myth. Change will come only through a coalition of the aggrieved. And those who are not permanently enraged are not paying proper attention... a poll taken last year found that 72 percent of Donald Trump supporters believe American society and its way of life have changed for the worse since the 1950s. And the most pessimistic and discontented lot of all was white evangelical Protestants. Almost three-quarters believed the past 70 years to be a period of social decline.Those of us who remember politics in the Reagan era have a mental habit of regarding conservatism as more optimistic about the American experiment and liberalism as more discontented... They are united in their belief that the United States is dominated by corrupt, self-serving elites. They are united in their call for radical rather than incremental change. While disagreeing deeply about the cause, they see America as careening off course... What group believes that American society has gotten better since the 1950s? About 60 percent of African Americans and Hispanics... Many conservatives have failed to appreciate the mixed legacy of modernity. In recent decades, the United States has seen declining community and family cohesion, and what former U.S. surgeon general Vivek H. Murthy calls “a loneliness epidemic.” “We live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization,” he says, “yet rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s.”.. elevate and praise American ideals while courageously applying them to our social inconsistencies and hypocrisies... And this might be matched with a spirit of gratitude — for a country capable of shame and change, and better than its grievances.