William Barr is not the problem
Even if he resigns, Trump will still work to compromise justice
I don't know if Attorney General William Barr will bow to a new pressure campaign to get him to resign. But I do know that whether he leaves office or whether he stays, it doesn't matter: As long as Donald Trump remains president, the Department of Justice will be compromised.
The fish rots from the head, after all.
The effort to force Barr's resignation has picked up a great deal of steam in the aftermath of Trump's successful push to get federal prosecutors to reduce their sentencing recommendation for his crony, Roger Stone. More than 2,000 former officials of the Department of Justice — a mix of both Republicans and Democrats — have signed a letter urging Barr to step down.
"Governments that use the enormous power of law enforcement to punish their enemies and reward their allies are not constitutional republics; they are autocracies," the officials said in the open letter, adding: "Mr. Barr's actions in doing the president's personal bidding unfortunately speak louder than his words. Those actions, and the damage they have done to the Department of Justice's reputation for integrity and the rule of law, require Mr. Barr to resign."
"Bill Barr's America is not a place that anyone, including Trump voters, should want to go," Ayer wrote. "It is a banana republic where all are subject to the whims of a dictatorial president and his henchmen. To prevent that, we need a public uprising demanding that Bill Barr resign immediately, or failing that, be impeached."
Fine words. But Barr's resignation would be meaningless.
He isn't Trump's first attorney general, remember. That distinction belonged to Jeff Sessions, the former U.S. senator from Alabama who was among the first prominent Republicans to endorse Trump's 2016 presidential run. He was rewarded with stewardship of the Justice Department — and immediately set about implementing the new president's pro-police anti-immigrant agenda.
For his troubles, Sessions was rewarded with little but Trump's contempt. Behind closed doors — and sometimes even in public — the president mocked the attorney general's diminutive stature and Southern accent. He even reportedly called Sessions a "dumb Southerner."
And Trump bullied Sessions mercilessly for the lawyer's decision to recuse himself — as required by the department's ethics guide — from the Russia investigation, setting the stage for Robert Mueller's special counsel inquiry. Mueller's inquiry didn't end up with any legal action against Trump, nor did it provide the basis for the president's recent impeachment. Nonetheless, Trump was enraged.
"Sessions should have never recused himself, and if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job, and I would have picked somebody else," Trump told The New York Times in 2017.
Trump ultimately fired Sessions.
Barr knew that history. He knew Trump's very public expectation that the attorney general serve as his de facto personal lawyer. And he knew that Trump expects the federal legal system to follow his whims and wishes, putting aside any notion of equality before the law in favor of greasing the wheels for the president and his associates. He knew hat Trump believes he has the "absolute right" to order special legal treatment for his friends. Barr took the job anyway.
Yes, Barr complained last week that the president's tweeting makes it difficult for him to do his job. But his protest was disingenuous — Trump is exactly the same man now as he was when Barr became attorney general last year. His expectations of personal loyalty from the federal bureaucracy haven't changed one bit. And until last week, it appeared Barr was very happy indeed to serve the president's wishes.
That will remain the case if Barr resigns. Trump will either pick a replacement attorney general who is all too happy to do the president's bidding and continue the degradation of justice at the federal level — or he will accidentally pick a lawyer with integrity, then bully that person into complying with his wishes. Neither scenario is great for the independence and reputation of the Department of Justice.
The well-intentioned people trying to replace Bill Barr should be aiming a little higher. If you want competent, honest leadership in the attorney general's office, the Oval Office must be cleansed of its current occupant. Unless voters kick out President Trump in November, any replacement for Barr will simply be a new face for the same old corruption.
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