And he’s on a mission to use the “authority” of the executive branch to stop it.
Why would a seemingly respectable, semiretired lion of the Washington establishment undermine the institutions he is sworn to uphold, incinerate his own reputation, and appear to willfully misrepresent the reports of special prosecutors and inspectors general, all to defend one of the most lawless and corrupt presidents in American history? And why has this particular attorney general appeared at this pivotal moment in our Republic?
A deeper understanding of William Barr is emerging, and it reveals something profound and disturbing about the evolution of conservatism in 21st-century America.
Some people have held that Mr. Barr is simply a partisan hack — willing to do whatever it takes to advance the interests of his own political party and its leadership. This view finds ample support in Mr. Barr’s own words. In a Nov. 15 speech at the Federalist Society’s National Lawyers Convention in Washington, he accused President Trump’s political opponents of “unprecedented abuse” and said they were “engaged in the systematic shredding of norms and the undermining of the rule of law.”
It is hardly the first time Mr. Barr stepped outside of long-established norms for the behavior of attorneys general. In his earlier stint as attorney general, during the George H.W. Bush presidency, Mr. Barr took on the role of helping to disappear the case against Reagan administration officials involved in the Iran-contra affair. The situation demonstrated that “powerful people with powerful allies can commit serious crimes in high office,” according to Lawrence Walsh, the independent prosecutor in that case. According to some critics, Mr. Barr delivered the partisan goods then, as he is delivering them now.
Another view is that Mr. Barr is principally a defender of a certain interpretation of the Constitution that attributes maximum power to the executive. This view, too, finds ample support in Mr. Barr’s own words. In the speech to the Federalist Society, he said, “Since the mid-’60s, there has been a steady grinding down of the executive branch’s authority that accelerated after Watergate.” In July, when President Trump claimed, in remarks to a conservative student group, “I have an Article II where I have the right to do whatever I want as president,” it is reasonable to suppose this is his CliffsNotes version of Mr. Barr’s ideology.
Both of these views are accurate enough. But at least since Mr. Barr’s infamous speech at the University of Notre Dame Law School, in which he blamed “secularists” for “moral chaos” and “immense suffering, wreckage and misery,” it has become clear that no understanding of William Barr can be complete without taking into account his views on the role of religion in society. For that, it is illuminating to review how Mr. Barr has directed his Justice Department on matters concerning the First Amendment clause forbidding the establishment of a state religion.
In Maryland, the department rushed to defend taxpayer funding for a religious school that says same-sex marriage is wrong. In Maine, it is defending parents suing over a state law that bans religious schools from obtaining taxpayer funding to promote their own sectarian doctrines. At his Department of Justice, Mr. Barr told law students at Notre Dame, “We keep an eye out for cases or events around the country where states are misapplying the establishment clause in a way that discriminates against people of faith.”
In these and other cases, Mr. Barr has embraced wholesale the “religious liberty” rhetoric of today’s Christian nationalist movement. When religious nationalists invoke “religious freedom,” it is typically code for religious privilege. The freedom they have in mind is the freedom of people of certain conservative and authoritarian varieties of religion to discriminate against those of whom they disapprove or over whom they wish to exert power.
This form of “religious liberty” seeks to foment the sense of persecution and paranoia of a collection of conservative religious groups that see themselves as on the cusp of losing their rightful position of dominance over American culture. It always singles out groups that can be blamed for society’s ills, and that may be subject to state-sanctioned discrimination and belittlement — L.G.B.T. Americans, secularists and Muslims are the favored targets, but others are available. The purpose of this “religious liberty” rhetoric is not just to secure a place of privilege, but also to justify public funding for the right kind of religion.
Barr watchers will know that this is nothing new. In a 1995 article he wrote for The Catholic Lawyer, which, as Emily Bazelon recently pointed out, appears to be something of a blueprint for his speech at Notre Dame, he complained that “we live in an increasingly militant, secular age” and expressed his grave concern that the law might force landlords to rent to unmarried couples. He implied that the idea that universities might treat “homosexual activist groups like any other student group” was intolerable.
This form of “religious liberty” is not a mere side issue for Mr. Barr, or for the other religious nationalists who have come to dominate the Republican Party. Mr. Barr has made this clear. All the problems of modernity — “the wreckage of the family,” “record levels of depression and mental illness,” “drug addiction” and “senseless violence” — stem from the loss of a strict interpretation of the Christian religion.
The great evildoers in the Notre Dame speech are nonbelievers who are apparently out on the streets ransacking everything that is good and holy. The solutions to society’s ills, Mr. Barr declared, come from faith. “Judeo-Christian moral standards are the ultimate utilitarian rules for human conduct,” he said. “Religion helps frame moral culture within society that instills and reinforces moral discipline.” He added, “The fact is that no secular creed has emerged capable of performing the role of religion.”
Within this ideological framework, the ends justify the means. In this light, Mr. Barr’s hyperpartisanship is the symptom, not the malady. At Christian nationalist gatherings and strategy meetings, the Democratic Party and its supporters are routinely described as “demonic” and associated with “rulers of the darkness.” If you know that society is under dire existential threat from secularists, and you know that they have all found a home in the other party, every conceivable compromise with principles, every ethical breach, every back-room deal is not only justifiable but imperative. And as the vicious reaction to Christianity Today’s anti-Trump editorial demonstrates, any break with this partisan alignment will be instantly denounced as heresy.
It is equally clear that Mr. Barr’s maximalist interpretation of executive power in the Constitution is just an effect, rather than a cause, of his ideological commitments. In fact, it isn’t really an interpretation. It is simply an unfounded assertion that the president has what amount to monarchical powers. “George III would have loved it,” said Douglas Kmiec, a law professor at Pepperdine who once held Mr. Barr’s position as head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, of Mr. Barr’s theory. It’s almost beside the point to note, as the conservative lawyers group Checks & Balances recently wrote, that Mr. Barr’s view of history “has no factual basis.”
Mr. Barr’s constitutional interpretation is simply window dressing on his commitment to religious authoritarianism. And that, really, gets to the heart of the matter. If you know anything about America’s founders, you know they were passionately opposed to the idea of a religious monarchy. And this is the key to understanding the question, “What does Bill Barr want?”
The answer is that America’s conservative movement, having morphed into a religious nationalist movement, is on a collision course with the American constitutional system. Though conservatives have long claimed to be the true champions of the Constitution — remember all that chatter during previous Republican administrations about “originalism” and “judicial restraint” — the movement that now controls the Republican Party is committed to a suite of ideas that are fundamentally incompatible with the Constitution and the Republic that the founders created under its auspices.
Mr. Trump’s presidency was not the cause of this anti-democratic movement in American politics. It was the consequence. He is the chosen instrument, not of God, but of today’s Christian nationalists, their political allies and funders, and the movement’s legal apparatus. Mr. Barr did not emerge in order to serve this one particular leader. On the contrary, Mr. Trump serves a movement that will cynically praise the Constitution in order to destroy it, and of which Mr. Barr has made himself a hero.
Presidential appointees, business advocates complain, routinely overstep the authority given them by Congress in how they write and enforce rules. With the addition of Brett Kavanaugh, President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, business sees the Supreme Court as a reliable bulwark against executive branch overreach.
.. Judge Kavanaugh believes presidents, unlike regulators, are owed considerable deference, especially on national security and law enforcement. That’s significant because Mr. Trump is now using national security to justify his own economic interventions, especially on trade.
.. Much of the controversy over the administrative state harkens back to 1984, when the Supreme Court decided, in a case involving the Environmental Protection Agency, Chevron U.S.A. Inc. and an environmental group, that when a law is unclear, the court should defer to a federal agency’s interpretation of that law.
.. Courts have cited Chevron deference, as this doctrine is known, to grant wide latitude to regulatory agencies, from the EPA to the Department of Labor and the Federal Communications Commission. Many conservatives blame it for a decadeslong transfer of power to the executive branch. They questioned the legality of President Barack Obama’s routine use of executive authority, such as limiting greenhouse gas emissions and suspending some deportations of illegal immigrants, to sidestep Congress.It encourages the president, regardless of party, to “be extremely aggressive in seeking to squeeze its policy goals into ill-fitting statutory authorizations and restraints.”
.. Both parties have agencies they love to hate: For Republicans, it’s the EPA and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau; for liberal Democrats, it’s now Immigration and Customs Enforcement. For both, it’s the Internal Revenue Service or the Justice Department when the other party controls the White House. In each case, a change of president is usually enough to change the agency’s behavior.
.. Yet even as he rolls back the administrative state, Mr. Trump has pushed the boundaries of presidential authority. He has imposed steep tariffs on imports of aluminum and steel and is planning the same on cars, citing his national security authority under a little-used 1962 law. Mr. Trump is also weighing forcing utilities to buy more coal and nuclear-generated power, also on national security grounds.In both cases, national security appears to be a pretext to shore up economically beleaguered industries... “There is a pronounced dichotomy between Kavanaugh’s view on deference to agencies as opposed to his view on deference to presidents,” says Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University. He says Congress has been progressively marginalized by the expanding authority of both federal agencies, and presidents; Judge Kavanaugh seems to oppose the first and encourage the second.
.. Judge Kavanaugh’s concurring opinion, as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, in 2015 that the National Security Agency could collect an individual’s telephone “meta data.” Because the purpose was preventing terrorist attacks, he said, it didn’t violate the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable search and seizure.
today, with the exception of the current justices and Judge Garland, it is hard to name anyone with judicial credentials as strong as those of Judge Kavanaugh.
.. Several of Judge Kavanaugh’s most important ideas and arguments — such as his powerful defense of presidential authority to oversee federal bureaucrats and his skepticism about newfangled attacks on the property rights of criminal defendants — have found their way into Supreme Court opinions.
.. Except for Judge Garland, no one has sent more of his law clerks to clerk for the justices of the Supreme Court than Judge Kavanaugh has. And his clerks have clerked for justices across the ideological spectrum.
.. This studiousness is especially important for a jurist like Judge Kavanaugh, who prioritizes the Constitution’s original meaning. A judge who seeks merely to follow precedent can simply read previous judicial opinions. But an “originalist” judge — who also cares about what the Constitution meant when its words were ratified in 1788 or when amendments were enacted — cannot do all the historical and conceptual legwork on his or her own.
Judge Kavanaugh seems to appreciate this fact, whereas Justice Antonin Scalia, a fellow originalist, did not read enough history and was especially weak on the history of the Reconstruction amendments and the 20th-century amendments.
.. admirably confessing that some of the views he held 20 years ago as a young lawyer — including his crabbed understandings of the presidency when he was working for the Whitewater independent counsel, Kenneth Starr — were erroneous.
.. they could try to sour the hearings by attacking Judge Kavanaugh and looking to complicate the proceedings whenever possible.
This would be a mistake. Judge Kavanaugh is, again, a superb nominee.
.. pledge either to vote yes for Judge Kavanaugh’s confirmation — or, if voting no, to first publicly name at least two clearly better candidates whom a Republican president might realistically have nominated instead (not an easy task).
The brazen assertion Monday by one of President Trump’s lawyers that a president cannot be found guilty of obstruction of justice signaled a controversial defense strategy in the wide-ranging Russia probe, as Trump’s political advisers are increasingly concerned about the legal advice he is receiving.
.. Trump tweeted over the weekend that he knew then-national security adviser Michael Flynn lied to the FBI about his contacts with the Russian ambassador before firing him in February — and before FBI Director James B. Comey said Trump asked him to be lenient while investigating Flynn. Experts said the president’s admission increased his legal exposure to obstruction-of-justice charges
.. Trump’s personal lawyer John Dowd sought to excuse the president’s tweet in part by telling Axios and NBC News on Monday that the “president cannot obstruct justice because he is the chief law enforcement officer under [the Constitution’s Article II] and has every right to express his view of any case.”
Dowd declined to elaborate on his theory or explain the emerging legal strategy to The Washington Post.
Inside the White House, some senior officials were baffled that Dowd publicly offered this interpretation of the law, which has been advanced since the summer by constitutional scholar Alan Dershowitz in defense of Trump but flatly dismissed by many other legal scholars.“We have a president, not a king,”.. “No one is above the law, whether it be Trump or any of his close associates. It’s the sort of desperate claim that makes you wonder, ‘What exactly are they hiding?’”.. “You cannot charge a president with obstruction of justice for exercising his constitutional power to fire Comey and his constitutional authority to tell the Justice Department who to investigate, who not to investigate,” Dershowitz said. “That’s what Thomas Jefferson did, that’s what Lincoln did, that’s what Roosevelt did. We have precedents that clearly establish that.”.. Dershowitz was appearing on “Fox & Friends,” a pro-Trump morning show that the president regularly watches. After his appearance, Trump tweeted, “A must watch: Legal Scholar Alan Dershowitz was just on @foxandfriends talking of what is going on with respect to the greatest Witch Hunt in U.S. political history.”.. Furthermore, he wrote, “the president has the constitutional authority to stop the investigation of any person by simply pardoning that person.”
.. Cobb and Dowd have urged Trump to cooperate fully with Mueller’s investigation, providing documents when asked by the special counsel and encouraging White House staffers to comply with requests for interviews... Cobb and Dowd also have been privately assuring the president that the Mueller probe was likely to reach its conclusion by the end of this year, complete with a public exoneration of Trump of any wrongdoing... In Monday’s interview, Cobb said he still believes Mueller’s investigation of Trump will reach “an appropriate result” by Christmas or early January... Stephen K. Bannon — have been grumbling for weeks that the president’s legal strategy is too compliant with Mueller and not combative enough... “The concern is that every time the president feels a little bit of pain from what Mueller’s doing, [his lawyers] give him OxyContin and tell him he’ll be fine by the morning,” this strategist said metaphorically.. Cobb said, “There’s no question that Bannon is doing the president a great disservice by agitating persistently on this issue. Internally, where people are actually informed, there’s no consternation about the decision to cooperate fully with the special counsel, and Mr. Bannon has yet to identify what fights he would pick and how constructive that would be.”
.. In 1999, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, then a senator from Alabama, argued that Clinton should be removed from office for obstructing justice in the investigation into his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.“The facts are disturbing and compelling on the president’s intent to obstruct justice,” Sessions said at the time.