Ride or die.
Support The Bulwark.
  Join Now

Bye-Bye, Bill Barr

The mostly tarnished legacy of Trump’s mostly complicit attorney general.
December 14, 2020
Featured Image
WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 28: Attorney General William Barr appears before the House Oversight Committee on July 28, 2020 on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. In his first congressional testimony in more than a year, Barr is expected to face questions from the committee about his deployment of federal law enforcement agents to Portland, Oregon, and other cities in response to Black Lives Matter protests; his role in using federal agents to violently clear protesters from Lafayette Square near the White House last month before a photo opportunity for President Donald Trump in front of a church; his intervention in court cases involving Trump’s allies Roger Stone and Michael Flynn; and other issues. (Photo by Matt McClain-Pool/Getty Images)

Some heads snapped when Attorney General William Barr told the truth on December 1. “To date, we have not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election.” This was not the Bill Barr we had come to expect. We were surprised again when we learned that Hunter Biden has been under federal investigation for some months, that this was known to Barr, and that he didn’t disclose it to President Trump for use in the campaign. These are damning facts—if you’re working for America’s most corrupt president. Contradicting Trump’s wild, absurdist fantasy of a Hugo-Chavez-orchestrated/hammer-and-scorecard/Dominion plot to steal the election that Trump had “won by a landslide” was bound to be a poker in the eye for the chief executive. And to think that Barr had incriminating information about Hunter Biden—the sort of thing Trump had gotten himself impeached attempting to extort—and kept it under wraps? Well, Barr’s days were numbered.

Never mind that there are only (praise God) 36 days left in the administration. Trump’s petulance must be served above all.

Barr should be grateful that he was offered the chance to submit a letter of resignation rather than be fired by tweet (though, of course, there was a tweet). And frankly, it’s hard to feel sympathy for the guy. Yes, those last two unexpected spasms of basic ethics must be weighed in the balance when considering his tenure, but Barr has much to answer for.

Unlike Omarosa, “the Mooch,” Cohen, Lewandowski, and the other C-listers Trump surrounded himself with, William Pelham Barr, attorney general under George H. W. Bush, former CIA, former Verizon attorney, was as pure an embodiment of the Republican establishment as you could find. Most of Trump’s hangers-on were con men and frauds like their mentor. If those had been Trump’s only enablers, he wouldn’t have gone far.

No, in order to seize the Republican party and the White House, he needed the assistance of a few key figures, people with credibility, if not quite gravitas. The first to extend this was the governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie. Sen. Jeff Sessions was the second. Others followed. They laid their reputations on the altar of Trump and watched them burn. It was the tribute he demanded. One of the more shocking revelations of this low, contemptible era is how much these seemingly self-respecting figures seemed to relish their servility.

Barr immolated his reputation first by misrepresenting the contents of the Mueller report, telling the world that the special counsel had found no collusion and therefore did not recommend further steps including prosecution or impeachment. Responding to a reporter’s question, Barr explicitly denied that “but for” the Justice Department policy against indicting a sitting president, Mueller might have recommended action. Mueller protested that this is not what the report said, and when the redacted report was released, it became clear to all that Barr had misled us about that very matter.

We know that Barr’s tolerance for deceit and disgraceful conduct had to be pretty robust because he auditioned for the attorney general job after watching his predecessor get flayed alive for following ethics rules. This is a question for every one of Trump’s post-Sessions hires. Sessions was a fool to endorse Trump in the primaries, but at least he was an early adopter unable to learn from others’ mistakes. He also turned out to have some standards. The rules said he needed to recuse himself. So he did it. The fact that Trump not only resented Sessions for this, but couldn’t fathom how someone could mold their behavior to anything other than raw self-interest, or Trump-interest, told you everything you needed to know about Trump. Trump’s selfishness is pathological.

Yet, there was Bill Barr, batting his eyes and lifting his skirt in Trump’s direction.

Barr was a weird amalgam of toady and totem. He constantly disregarded Justice Department precedent and ethical standards in service to his chief. As Bob Bauer and Jack Goldsmith recount in After Trump: Reconstructing the Presidency, Barr appointed U.S. Attorney John Durham to “investigate the investigators” in the Russia matter. That much was not improper. What followed was. Against Justice Department norms and regulations requiring department officials to remain mum about ongoing investigations, Barr offered public comments about what Durham was finding. He said the FBI had acted in bad faith. Asked if government employees had committed treason, Barr implied something terrible by responding, “not as a legal matter, no.” Regarding former FBI Director James Comey, Barr opined that “I think Comey has cast himself as being seven layers above the decision-making. I don’t think that holds water. The record will be clear that that’s not the case.”

He criss-crossed the world seeking evidence for what he must have hoped would be Durham’s deus ex machina, redeeming Trump’s reputation in the Russia matter and wreaking vengeance on his accusers.

He intervened in Roger Stone’s case to decrease his sentence—a favor not offered to any non-Donald Trump friend. He intervened in the Michael Flynn case as well.

But there were lines he would not cross. He didn’t participate in the latest and most damaging of Trump’s assaults on America’s democracy—the stolen election fraud. He pushed back. And he didn’t hand over dirt on Hunter Biden.

Had he never joined the Trump administration, Barr would be remembered as a completely honorable man. As it is, his legacy is badly tarnished. Still, Barr had some standards. How much worse could things have been if he had none?

Mona Charen

Mona Charen is Policy Editor of The Bulwark, a nationally syndicated columnist, and host of The Bulwark’s Beg to Differ podcast. She can be reached at [email protected].