Bill Barr has received approving nods recently for finally publicly turning against his former boss, rejecting Donald Trump’s claims of election fraud in testimony before the January 6 committee and repeatedly condemning on Fox News both Trump’s theft of classified government documents and the bizarre court decision letting a special master consider Trump’s absurd claims. While some have noted that this recent turn does not make up for his gross mishandling of his office over the 22 months he served as attorney general, most people give Barr credit for his recent dalliance with the truth.
Credit for moving the public discussion closer to reality is one thing, but no one should think that Barr is having second thoughts about the awful things he did in office. To the contrary, Barr’s recent trashing of Trump in a manner likely to greatly impair his presidential prospects makes perfect sense when one understands the driving convictions and objectives that have guided him throughout his adult life.
Remember that Barr sought out the opportunity to serve as Trump’s attorney general by submitting a memorandum in June 2018, expanding upon his long-held, breathtaking vision that the Founders created an all-powerful president immune from virtually any limitation on his powers. Those views had occupied Barr’s mind since the 1980s. In the memo, Barr applied that vision to Trump’s then-current obsession, arguing that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation was a wholly illegitimate intrusion on those powers.
The June 2018 memorandum shows Barr clamoring for Trump’s attention because Trump offered a unique opportunity to advance Barr’s decades-old objective of an autocratic president. Unlike any of Trump’s predecessors in whose administrations he served, and certainly unlike George H. W. Bush, Trump openly espoused the view that he could “do whatever [he] wanted as president.” Turning Trump into Barr’s ideal of the autocratic president required Trump’s reelection in 2020, and Barr aggressively pushed for changes in law that would largely block interference with the president’s actions.
The nature of those changes, and Barr’s determination to pursue them, were carefully spelled out in a major speech delivered to the Federalist Society on November 15, 2019, in which Barr argued that, contrary to “the grammar-school civics-class version” of the Founders’ government as one of checks and balances, the founding generation actually meant for the president to wield essentially unchecked authority.
Barr’s aggressiveness in defending Trump against those who would second-guess his actions is best known in connection with the lies he told about the Mueller report, while keeping the report itself under wraps so people could not see how inaccurate his statements were. His interventions in ongoing cases—including the criminal cases against Roger Stone and Michael Flynn—to substitute outcomes that were politically desirable for the president for those arrived at in routine course based on the facts and the law also drew widespread objections.
But the central goal laid out in the Federalist Society speech was the negation of the system of checks and balances long recognized as an integral part of our government. This included efforts to resist meaningful congressional oversight, up to and including Barr’s own personal refusal to appear on many occasions. It also included arguing vigorously in court to limit the power of the judiciary to review executive-branch actions. Barr’s Justice Department also worked to undermine Congress’s appropriation power, by litigating in support of the president’s right to divert funds for the border wall, which Congress had repeatedly refused to fund. And Barr was also an active participant in actions to remove officials—including U.S. attorneys and inspectors general—who did not dance to the tune that he and Trump were playing.
During 2020, Barr misused his official authority in many ways calculated to help Trump secure reelection. He sent law-enforcement officers to cities around the country to “suppress violent rioters and anarchists” who he said had “hijacked legitimate protests”—thus echoing Trump’s own calls for a crackdown. He oversaw the law-enforcement action to deny the right of peaceful protest in Lafayette Square so Trump could have a photo op at St. John’s Church. His department unsuccessfully attempted to enjoin the publication of former National Security Adviser John Bolton’s book, which disclosed facts embarrassing to the president.
Again sounding like Trump, Barr made multiple unsupported statements about the untrustworthiness of mail-in voting. He also talked at length—in violation of clear departmental policy to refrain from commenting about ongoing investigations—about supposed improprieties being unearthed by John Durham’s specially commissioned investigation of the FBI inquiry into Russian election interference. Barr echoed Trump’s tweets in interviews on various networks, hinting at indictments that might be coming, and expressly characterized the FBI probe as “spying” on the Trump campaign and “one of the greatest travesties in American history.” Less than a week after the 2020 presidential election, Barr even took the unconventional step of directing all United States attorneys to investigate any allegations of election fraud—contrary to the long-standing policy of leaving that to the states, which are responsible for conducting the election.
For all of Barr’s abuses of authority in an effort to keep Trump in office, it became clear to Barr by early December 2020, when zero evidence of serious fraud could be found, that Trump had run out his string. So Barr resigned. Since then, Trump has made things infinitely worse for himself, by engaging in a conspiracy to overturn the election by deception and violence, which culminated in the events of January 6, 2021. Were that not enough, the saga of the Mar-a-Lago documents reveals beyond doubt that Trump illegally retained, and apparently actively resisted returning, a very large number of highly classified documents, with who knows what grave consequences for national security.
As a result of these events, Barr has realized that Trump, far from being the indispensable person for the realization of his vision of an autocratic president, has become perhaps the greatest obstacle to its achievement. In a party where Barr’s bizarre ideal of an unfettered president holds tremendous sway, Trump can’t win in the general election, and if nominated he would likely take the banner of autocracy down with him. Barr feels the need to remove Trump from serious consideration so that another standard-bearer for that cause can pick up where Trump left off. Who knows? Perhaps Barr can come back for a third turn as attorney general to finish the job.