Opinion

Good riddance, Bill Barr

Trump's legal henchman is on the way out, and not a moment too soon

Bill Barr was supposed to be the adult in the room.

It is difficult to remember now, but when Barr was originally nominated in December 2018 for a second stint as attorney general — he had earlier served under President George H.W. Bush during the early 1990s — he was widely portrayed as a steadying influence for the Department of Justice, somebody who could take a firm stance against President Trump's attempts to use the federal justice system for corrupt and undemocratic ends.

"Barr plainly has the stature and the character to stand up for the department's institutional prerogatives, and to push back on any improper attempt to inject politics into its work," Harry Litman, a liberal constitutional scholar, wrote for The Washington Post.

That's not how it worked out. (And Litman, for what it is worth, has admitted as much.) Instead of character, Barr has treated Americans to a parade of hypocrisy for two years: He was a law and order crusader who helped presidential cronies evade consequences for their crimes in two administrations; a constitutionalist who didn't mind blowing off congressional oversight; a moralist who put his talents and intellect in the service of the most corrupt president since Richard Nixon.

Barr's resignation, reported by the president Monday on Twitter, changes none of that. While both Barr and Trump tried to put a happy face on the attorney general's early departure from office, reports suggested that Trump had been enraged by Barr's recent declaration that — despite the president's false allegations — "we have not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome" in the presidential election.

Barr, meanwhile, was reportedly tired of taking the president's guff.

"For weeks Barr had expressed frustration to advisers about the attacks on the integrity of the election system by Trump and his allies, telling one they were outlandish and nutty," the Los Angeles Times reported. "He was particularly irked when they pushed him to launch investigations on the thinnest of reeds."

This explanation makes no sense. Barr knew Trump would attack the results of any election he lost — he has telegraphed his plan to do so for years. And as president, he has long made it abundantly clear that he expected the Department of Justice — including the FBI — to serve him in much the way his former fixer Michael Cohen did before Trump was president, protecting his friends and punishing his enemies. For the most part, Barr has seemed willing to play that role, no matter how "outlandish and nutty" the president's demands.

Most famously, Barr released his own distorted summary of the Mueller Report, one that seemed to exonerate the president from wrongdoing connected to Russia's interference in the 2016 election. (The actual report, released later, strongly suggested Trump had committed obstruction of justice.) And while Barr was in charge, federal prosecutors often ended up giving the president's friends the benefit of the doubt — trying to undo its prosecution of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn after Flynn had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, and reducing its sentencing recommendation for dirty trickster Roger Stone after Stone was convicted of obstruction in the Russia investigation. Indeed, Barr's record under Trump is one of undermining the integrity and independence of the Department of Justice.

So, why grow a spine now? If the reports are true, why the sudden attack of integrity? Was there some real principle being violated, some line crossed by the president that was too far for Barr? If so, what could it have been? Did he just decide that he simply didn't want to endure Trump's tantrums for a few more weeks? Or did he think by leaving now, under these circumstances, he might preserve some shred of his reputation for probity?

If so, too bad. Barr's legacy as Trump's legal henchman is already set.

In all likelihood, he will suffer no real consequence for enabling this president's lies and corruption. Barr hasn't provided much evidence that he cares what other people think of him, and has sometimes seemed to delight in angry criticism. He is also rich, and — at 70 — old enough to retire again. He won't have to join the list of Trump administration staffers finding out that serving this president isn't a great resume item back in the business world.

It was already the case, though, that one of the best things about Trump's election loss is that Barr won't get to do this president's dirty work any longer. Now he's leaving a month early. Good riddance.

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