When Attorney General Bill Barr appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee in January 2019, he sold himself as a principled servant of the law. Barr told senators that he would “not permit partisan politics, personal interests, or any other improper consideration to interfere” with the Russia investigation under then–special counsel Robert Mueller. He assured the committee that he would run the Justice Department with “professionalism and integrity” and that his allegiance “will be to the rule of law, the Constitution, and the American people.”
“Over the long run, the course of justice in our country has more to do with the character of the Department of Justice as an enduring institution than with the tenure of any particular attorney general,” he concluded. “Above all else, if confirmed, I will work diligently to protect the professionalism and integrity of the Department as an institution, and I will strive to leave it, and the nation, a stronger and better place.”
He failed. Barr, who announced his resignation on Monday, 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’s resignation letter to Trump reads like a refutation of everything he told the Senate two years ago. “Your 2016 victory speech in which you reached out to your opponents and called for working together for the benefit of the American people was immediately met by a partisan onslaught against you in which no tactic, no matter how abusive and deceitful, was out of bounds,” he wrote. “The nadir of this campaign was the effort to cripple, if not oust, your administration with frenzied and baseless accusations of collusion with Russia.” In other words, Bill Barr was everything his critics suspected he would be: a loyal crony of the president, willing to suspend the DOJ’s cherished independence to instead serve the White House’s political ends.
How did it come to this? In many ways, Barr was unlike any of the other dominant figures of the Trump administration. He previously ran the Justice Department under George H.W. Bush in the early 1990s, giving him an unusual amount of direct experience for a member of Trump’s Cabinet. Barr’s personal and professional affinities were those of a typical establishment Republican in an administration that often elevated right-wing misfits and fringe elements to top roles. And he brought a certain degree of basic competence to the job, setting him apart from the Rex Tillersons and the Scott Pruitts of the last four years.
But Barr was also a perfect fit for Trump in other ways. He is a relentless advocate for expanding the executive branch’s power and dismantling the post-Watergate consensus that kept it in check. “The premise is that the greatest danger of government becoming oppressive arises from the prospect of executive excess,” he told a Federalist Society gala last year. “So there is a knee-jerk tendency to see the legislative and judicial branches as the good guys protecting society from a rapacious would-be autocrat. This prejudice is wrong-headed and atavistic.” Barr’s argument was unpersuasive even before the president spent the last month trying to overturn the November election, only to be stymied by Congress and the courts.
In speeches and lectures over the past two years, Barr drew a line between liberal democracy, which evolved from Augustinian Christianity into the noble American Revolution, and an ascendant “totalitarian democracy” that sprang from the blood-soaked French Revolution. This worldview led him to conclude that Reagan-era conservatism is the natural governing ideology of the republic and that any deviations from it are constitutionally suspect. He sees modern American liberalism—and, by extension, much of the Democratic Party—as not only a political threat to the country but a spiritual one, as well.
“Secularists, and their allies among the ‘progressives,’ have marshaled all the force of mass communications, popular culture, the entertainment industry, and academia in an unremitting assault on religion and traditional values,” he claimed in one speech. “These instruments are used not only to affirmatively promote secular orthodoxy but also drown out and silence opposing voices, and to attack viciously and hold up to ridicule any dissenters.” As a private citizen, Barr’s statements would be unremarkable. As the attorney general of a pluralistic nation, they were almost sectarian.
Barr’s worldview also led him to conclude that the Trump administration needed to be protected from existential threats. He wrote a memo in 2017 for the White House and Justice Department that criticized a legal theory purportedly behind Mueller’s investigation at the time. During his confirmation hearing, Barr went out of his way to highlight his personal friendship with Mueller, which helped assuage concerns on Capitol Hill that he would improperly meddle in his inquiry. When Mueller submitted his report to Barr last year, however, the attorney general went to extraordinary—and deceptive—lengths to paint its damaging findings about Trump in the best possible light. Mueller himself privately protested Barr’s whitewashing. A federal judge publicly castigated Barr for misleading the American public, concluding that the attorney general lacked credibility in his court.
But the strategem worked, giving Trump a political boost as Barr turned his efforts toward counterattacks. He launched multiple investigations into the Russia investigation’s origins and tactics, including one by U.S. attorney John Durham that failed to produce any results before the November election. On December 1, Barr revealed that he appointed Durham as a special counsel in the investigation, effectively giving him the same protections against interference that Mueller enjoyed and ensuring his work will continue well into the Biden era. The president-elect won’t spend his free time going on destructive Twitter rants about that investigation or the one into his son. But the inquiries will give plenty of grist to Fox News and other conservative news outlets to saturate their audiences with along the way.
Beyond those inquiries, Barr also set out to dismantle Mueller’s work. 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.
“You know liberals project,” Barr said in the interview. “All this bullshit about how the president is going to stay in office and seize power? I’ve never heard of any of that crap. I mean, I’m the attorney general. I would think I would have heard about it. They are projecting. They are creating an incendiary situation where there will be loss of confidence in the vote. Someone will say the president just won Nevada. ‘Oh, wait a minute! We just discovered 100,000 ballots! Every vote will be counted!’ Yeah, but we don’t know where these freaking votes came from.” Complaining that Democrats were undermining confidence in the election, and then immediately pivoting to a purely speculative claim of election fraud, is a perfect summation of his Trump-era tenure.
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.