William Barr was hungry. “Mr Chairman, could we take a five-minute break?” the attorney general asked Jerry Nadler of the House of Representatives’ judiciary committee. “No,” retorted Nadler, his hearing almost done. Barr responded sardonically: “You’re a real class act.”
It was pure Barr: a proud, combative, unflappable and unapologetic partisan warrior in the loyal service of the White House.
During the five-hour session on Capitol Hill in Washington this week, Barr made clear why he has been dubbed Donald Trump’s faithful protector and personal henchman. He defended using federal forces in US cities, denied giving Trump’s allies favorable treatment and demurred on issues such as foreign election interference or whether November’s poll can be postponed.
For critics, it was proof positive that Barr’s unswerving loyalty to the president has torn down the wall that separates the White House and justice department and ensures law enforcement operates independent of politics. Some believe he now poses an existential threat to democracy itself.
“Because of his position as the attorney general, he has control over a lot of what’s acceptable and what isn’t under the law up until the point where the federal judiciary can stop him. It makes him very dangerous, especially when you’re dealing with a president who has no regard for the constitution or the rule of law,” said Tara Setmayer, a former Republican communications director on Capitol Hill.
During his 18 months in office, Barr, 70, has backed Trump even as he defies norms, stokes division and is buffeted by the coronavirus pandemic, economic slump and tumbling poll numbers. Democrats have demanded his impeachment, accused him of politicizing the justice department and enabling an “imperial presidency” like no other.
Democrat Joe Biden, Trump’s election opponent, tweeted on Thursday: “Bill Barr is the Attorney General of the United States – not the president’s private attorney.”
Barr, a devout Catholic and keen bagpiper, previously served as attorney general under President George HW Bush from 1991 to 1993. This raised hopes that he would be an establishment Republican who could check Trump’s impulses, maintain the department’s independence and offer normality in an era that is anything but.
Those hopes were badly misplaced.
In reality he had always been an advocate of expansive presidential power and a hard line on fighting crime. He is therefore seen as a perfect fit for Trump, who has repeatedly tested the limits of executive authority and is now pushing a “law and order” theme for his election campaign against Biden.
Weeks after his Senate confirmation Barr cleared Trump of obstruction of justice allegations even when Robert Mueller, the special counsel, did no such thing, and produced a summary of Mueller’s Russia investigation that set an unduly rosy narrative for the president.
Barr has since made good on Trump’s rallying cry to investigate the origins of the Russia investigation in what Democrats see as a politically motivated attempt to damage Biden, the former vice-president, ahead of the election.
He has also been sharply criticized for a decision to drop the prosecution of Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn and urging a more lenient sentence for Trump’s ally Roger Stone, a move that prompted the entire trial team’s departure. The Flynn dismissal will be reviewed by a federal appeals court but Trump commuted Stone’s sentence altogether.
In addition, Barr claimed that Geoffrey Berman, the top federal prosecutor in Manhattan, New York, had agreed to “step down”, only for Berman to explicitly deny this. Such actions have prompted open letters signed by thousands of justice department alumni demanding Barr’s resignation.
On Tuesday, Barr faced grandstanding Democrats and conspiracy theorist Republicans in his first appearance before the House judiciary committee. Nadler accused him of waging “persistent war” against the justice department’s independence “in an apparent effort to secure favors” for Trump. “Shame on you,” the chairman said.
The attorney general defended the aggressive federal law enforcement response to civil unrest in Portland and other cities. “What unfolds nightly around the courthouse cannot reasonably be called a protest,” he said. “It is, by any objective measure, an assault on the government of the United States.”
Although some protesters in Portland have been violent, most have been peaceful and have included military veterans, off-duty lawyers, school pupils and rows of women known as the “Wall of Moms”. Law enforcement officers have responded with teargas, pepper balls and flash bangs.
Setmayer said: “By sending federal law enforcement officers into places like Portland and other cities, all it’s doing is offering propaganda for the Trump campaign to use to push the law-and-order scare tactics of his campaign. They don’t have anything else to run on. So this is the crux now of the fear campaign that Donald Trump plans to use and Bill Barr is a willing accomplice.”
I think he has all of Trump’s bad intentions but with little of Trump’s incompetence
Paul Rosenzweig, a senior fellow at the R Street Institute and veteran of the George W Bush administration, added: “Weaponising the Department of Justice is bad but basically your troops are lawyers with pens. Weaponising the Department of Homeland Security’s law enforcement is worse because your troops are armed with guns.”
The Capitol Hill hearing raised further concerns about the fast-approaching election. Asked whether it would be appropriate for the president to accept foreign help, Barr parried that it “depends what kind of assistance”. Only when pressed did he clarify: “No, it’s not appropriate.”
While Barr testified that he has “no reason to think” the election will be rigged, he said there could be a “high risk” of voter fraud due to “the wholesale conversion of election to mail-in voting”. Asked whether a sitting US president can move the election date, he replied: “Actually, I haven’t looked into that question under the constitution.”
Two days later, Trump tweeted that widespread mail balloting would be a “catastrophic disaster” and floated the idea of changing the election date, which he has no power to do. Election experts point out that all forms of voter fraud are extremely rare and note that Trump himself voted by mail in the last Florida Republican primary.
Stuart Stevens, a Republican political consultant and author of the upcoming book It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump, tweeted on Thursday: “Trump can’t cancel an election? Ummm. Ponder this: Trump orders DHS to impound ballots in Dade County on Nov. 1 after ‘reports’ of ‘irregularities.’ Who stops them? Courts order return. But ballots now declared invalid. Chaos. Florida re-vote? What would Barr do? Republicans?”
What Barr would do remains a critical question.
Once regarded as a conservative stalwart, he has proved less bulwark than bully in the Trump administration, critics allege. Rosenzweig said: “I was one who thought that his appointment as attorney general would be good for the department because 30 years ago he was within the bounds and norms of establishment Republican behavior, perhaps a little more conservative than many but an institutionalist who would restore the department’s independence and stand up to Trump in asserting that.
“I have been both shocked and surprised to see that this is not the case any more. I don’t know whether the person 30 years ago was hiding all of this or if he’s changed, but it is clear that the man who 30 years ago was the attorney general for George Bush is not the same person as the man today.”
In that sense, Barr is far from alone. Matthew Miller, a former director of the justice department’s public affairs office, said: “Bill Barr has gone off the deep end like the entire Republican party. His journey is just the same journey the rest of the Republican party has gone on which is very conservative, but also he’s had his brain pickled by years of Fox News.”
Miller added: “I think he has all of Trump’s bad intentions but with little of Trump’s incompetence. You combine Trump’s bad intentions with someone who is actually competent and mastering the levers of government and it’s fairly dangerous.”