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.
Finally, adopting a hysterical tone, Hemel and Posner write:
Remember when President Trump demanded “loyalty” from [former FBI director James] Comey? If Mr. Barr is confirmed as attorney general, it looks as though the president will get what he wanted. “He alone is the Executive branch,” Mr. Barr wrote of the president. The attorney general and the Justice Department lawyers “who exercise prosecutorial discretion on his behalf” are “merely ‘his hand.’” These bizarre statements are not those of a lawyer but of a courtier.
Actually, far from “bizarre statements,” Barr’s assertions reflect the views of the late, great Justice Antonin Scalia in his much-admired dissent in Morrison v. Olson (1988). The Constitution says, “The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States.” As Justice Scalia memorably explained, “this does not mean some of the executive power, but all of the executive power.” Such estimable scholars as Hemel and Posner must know that Barr — far from sending a signal about “loyalty,” which former director Comey alleges President Trump demanded of him — was merely articulating the “unitary executive” theory. That theory, rooted in constitutional law, holds that Article II vests all executive power in a single official, the president; therefore, subordinates appointed to wield executive power, including government lawyers exercising prosecutorial discretion, do so as delegates of the chief executive. That, indeed, is why all executive officers serve at the pleasure of the president, who does not need a reason to dismiss them.
Conservatives who think about constitutional and legal issues, the administrative state, and the executive branch have argued for many years now for the importance of the so-called “unitary executive” model of the presidency.
.. And conservatives therefore tend to recoil from the notion that the broader executive branch has its own distinct prerogatives and exists apart from the president as a kind of administrative state onto itself.
But when you talk to senior officials in this administration about their work, and when you listen to the ways they talk about it with journalists and activists, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that what we are seeing in the Trump era so far is the emergence of something like the inverse of the unitary executive.
.. Today, the people who occupy executive-branch positions (in the White House and in other agencies) are all trying to administer the government as if there were a president in office directing their work in the ways presidents generally do, even as they know that isn’t quite the case. And when people raise concerns with them about something the president has said, they respond by offering calming assurances that there is a body of people governing precisely not as extensions of the president. They say “the system is working,” and they mean we have a functional administration most of the time despite what’s going on at the top
.. The national security team calms foreign and domestic worries by pointing to the layered infrastructure of decisionmaking they have tried to set up. Social and fiscal conservatives on the inside calm those on the outside by pointing to the work being done by various appointees. When the most populist and nationalist of Trump’s supporters become worried that he might be abandoning them to make deals with swamp dwellers they are reassured by like-minded people very close to the president that he will soon enough move on and let them work. These various calming voices are of course in some tension with one another, but they are in agreement that at this point what the administration does is not connected to what the president says in the usual way.
.. But once in a while—through Twitter or an interview—we get a glimpse of Trump himself that has the feel of a fleeting glance into the dark, swirling maw of a shrieking brute, angry and in pain, and kept out of view by careful machinations.
.. But the idea that there is much more to the executive than the president is a form of a problem with the administrative state that conservatives normally, and rightly, worry about.
.. Like the importance of character in leadership, this longstanding conservative concern is a subject many on the Right will probably feel is better avoided or dismissed while this particular president is in office. But as with the character question, it sure seems like there will be a price to pay in time.