In recent days, President Donald Trump has aimed his ire at the nation’s legal system. He has repeatedly attacked the forewoman of a jury that rendered a verdict against a longtime associate (Roger Stone); railed at a Democratic critic (House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff), goading his surrogates into demanding a federal investigation into Schiff; and urged two liberal Supreme Court justices (Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor) to recuse themselves from cases involving him and his administration.
And, oh yes, in the midst of all this, Trump anointed himself the nation’s “chief law enforcement officer,” a title that the Constitution does not confer on him and which undermines the important tenet that law enforcement be insulated from politics.
And what has the person generally called the chief law enforcement officer — Attorney General William Barr — done about this? Well, a couple of weeks ago, Barr called on Trump to stop tweeting about pending cases. But since then, as Trump responded to this mild rebuke by defiantly ramping up his attacks, Barr has been mum.
When Barr was nominated, we were encouraged that he would add gravitas and stability to one of the most important posts in government. He had served in the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and seemed far better qualified than Matthew Whitaker, who was occupying the job on an interim basis after Jeff Sessions was pushed out.
At Barr’s Senate confirmation hearing, he pledged “to provide the leadership necessary to protect the independence of this department.”
Barr has not lived up to that promise. In some respects, he has been more destructive than his predecessors: His pedigree has given him cover as he shreds the rule of law and promotes overly expansive views about executive power.
During his year on the job, the attorney general:
— Put a pro-Trump spin on the Mueller report, rushing to clear the president of attempting to obstruct justice despite substantial evidence to the contrary.
— Oversaw a department that took a nothing-to-see-here attitude toward a whistleblower’s complaint about Trump’s effort to shake down Ukraine’s government for dirt on a political rival.
— Reversed the decision of career prosecutors who were seeking a harsh sentence for Stone, a Trump confidante convicted of lying to Congress, witness tampering and obstruction. Four prosecutors quit the case, and one left the Justice Department altogether.
— Reopened the case of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, undermining the work of career prosecutors. Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI in 2017 but later — at a time when Trump was pressing the Justice Department to be nice to his friends and harsh on his foes — asked to withdraw his plea.
— Until very recently continued the highly problematic pursuit of former Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, who raised alarm bells about Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
Before Barr, there had been some highly suspect actions taken by Justice, including a meritless lawsuit brought against the merger of AT&T and Time Warner that appeared to be based on Trump’s antipathy toward Time Warner’s CNN unit.
But the political interference has ramped up under Barr’s tenure. His actions have shocked former Justice employees (more than 2,600 of whom signed a letter calling on Barr to resign after his intervention in the Stone case) and prompted alarm among federal judges.
Barr said this month that Trump’s tweets and other comments are making it impossible for him to do his job. But does the attorney general see that job as doing impartial justice or the president’s bidding? Barr’s effort to straddle that line is growing increasingly untenable.
— USA TODAY