Bill Barr has an intriguing theory. In a 19-page memo that prompted President Trump to hire him as his attorney general, Barr argued it was legally impossible for the president to commit obstruction of justice by using his presidential powers—even if he were trying to block an investigation into his own conduct. The president, Barr wrote in his memo, “alone is the Executive branch.” Thus, Trump has “illimitable discretion” to demand that the FBI and Justice Department do as he pleases. And so it was that when special counsel Robert Mueller’s report landed on his desk, Barr quickly announced: No obstruction. But now we know that Mueller clearly referred the evidence he’d gathered on 10 acts of possible obstruction to Congress. (See Main Stories.) In Congress, Mueller wrote, there are the proper “constitutional processes for addressing presidential misconduct.” He pointedly added: “No person is above the law.”
One of the Founders’ greatest fears about their experiment in democratic self-rule was that it would eventually slide into tyranny. This is why they set up separate executive, legislative, and judicial branches, and built in “checks and balances” to keep some future president from turning into a king. If Barr’s radical view of presidential authority becomes accepted, constitutional scholar Neil Kinkopf points out, this president—and every president—will become “an imperial executive” who can defy Congress, the courts, and even federal law. Trump could order the chairman of the Federal Reserve to lower interest rates to zero and fire him if he refused. He could insist that the Securities and Exchange Commission file antitrust suits against companies he disliked. He could order the Justice Department to prosecute his political opponents. He could defy congressional subpoenas, and run the government as he did his private business. “I could have fired everyone, including Mueller, if I wanted,” Trump tweeted this week. L’état, c’est moi.