Thursday, December 17, 2020

Attorney General Bill Barr's fall from grace

According to Matt Ford of The New Republic, Attorney General William Barr, who recently announced his resignation, did more damage to the rule of law than any other attorney general in American history. He transformed the Justice Department into a partisan cudgel for President Donald Trump, undercutting probes that might damage the White House and doling out special treatment for presidential allies who broke the law. He treated hypocrisy like a virtue and self-awareness as a vice.

Barr set out to dismantle the work of the Mueller investigation. Earlier this year, the Justice Department’s upper ranks overrode a sentencing recommendation by career prosecutors for Roger Stone, a close Trump ally who was convicted of lying to Congress about the Russia investigation. The second version of the recommendation all but pleaded with the judge for leniency—a quality that Barr does not extend to people who aren’t friends with Donald Trump. Under Barr’s watch, Justice Department prosecutors also tried to withdraw their case against former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI to avoid prosecution on other charges. Trump eventually intervened in both cases with the use of his pardon power, and may ultimately use it to wipe away legal consequences for other allies over the past four years.

Like the president and many other Americans, Barr also appears to believe too much of what he sees on Fox News. He shares Trump’s unfounded belief that widespread voter fraud exists, and followed the president’s lead in sapping public confidence in the American electoral system throughout the year. Barr claimed from time to time that a foreign power could inundate states with fraudulent mail-in ballots, a scenario that election officials and experts said would be easy to detect and logistically impossible to carry out. In an interview with a Chicago Tribune columnist this fall, Barr baselessly complained that “there’s no secret vote” with mail-in balloting, and that elections could be decided by corrupt big-city machines and bought-off mailmen.

It’s now axiomatic in conservative circles that Democrats tried to sabotage Trump during the 2016 election and transition period, and that the 2020 election was marred by some sort of systemic fraud that deprived Trump of victory. Barr did not invent either of these conspiracy theories, but he used the full weight and influence of the Justice Department to give them credence at every turn. For all of Barr’s pieties about the decay of the American republic, there are few in public life who have contributed more to it.

It’s fitting, then, that what appears to have driven Barr from his post was his failure to give Trump everything he wanted. There was no October surprise against Joe Biden from the FBI this year like the one that helped fell Hillary Clinton in 2016. Federal prosecutors found no evidence to support Trump’s lies about widespread voter fraud, even though Barr effectively gave them carte blanche to pursue it. That news turned both Trump and the conservative base writ large against one of their most loyal foot soldiers. Barr was more than happy to serve as the Tudor-era lord chancellor to Trump’s Henry VIII–like presidency. But he forgot how that ended for Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell.

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