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William Barr goes all-in for Trump campaign themes weeks before election

Chris Strohm
Bloomberg

Attorney General William Barr has become one of Donald Trump’s most potent sources of campaign ammunition and political cover less than 50 days before the president faces voters, a most unconventional role for the nation’s top law enforcement officer.

Adding to critics’ concern that he’s cast aside the notion of Justice Department independence, Barr has hurled himself and his agency into the middle of the most controversial issues that Trump and his campaign see as vital to winning re-election on Nov. 3.

In recent days, Barr has belittled the career prosecutors he leads, told U.S. attorneys to consider charging violent protesters under a sedition law that makes it a crime to interfere with law enforcement or plot a coup, compared coronavirus lockdowns to slavery and intervened in a case involving a rape accusation against Trump that was being handled by the president’s personal lawyers.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr speaks at a news conference, Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020, in Phoenix, where he announced results of a crackdown on international drug trafficking. Barr spent much of his time attacking mail-in voting, defending a Justice Department decision to take over defense of President Trump in a defamation case and discussing the civil unrest triggered by the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May.

Barr has given no indication that he plans to back down as the election nears, as polls consistently show Trump lagging Democrat Joe Biden. Instead, the two-time attorney general is maintaining a high profile as he presses ahead with efforts to amplify Trump’s message about “law and order.”

And Barr insists he can reveal findings of a criminal investigation into the origins of the 2016 probe into Russian interference right up to the election, even though critics say doing so would break internal department rules about releasing politically damaging information shortly before voters cast their ballots.

House Democrats who head key oversight committees, including Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff and Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, sent a letter to the Justice Department’s internal watchdog on Friday asking for an emergency inquiry into whether Barr and other officials are violating the policy on elections, including if they release the investigation’s findings in coming weeks.

“Attorney General Barr has signaled repeatedly that he is likely to allow DOJ to take prosecutorial actions, make public disclosures, and even issue reports before the presidential election in November,” according to the letter sent to Inspector General Michael Horowitz. “Such actions clearly appear intended to benefit President Trump politically.”

The 10 Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee made a similar request on Thursday.

Red Meat

After J. Edgar Hoover’s five-decade rule of the FBI came to an end in the 1970s, a consensus emerged that the Justice Department should maintain some political distance from the White House, even though the attorney general is nominated by the president and serves in the Cabinet. Critics say that this aspiration for independence is crumbling under Barr.

“It looks like he just gets up in the morning and wants to throw red meat to Donald Trump’s base,” said Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon. “He sort of reconfigured the whole role of the job into being Donald Trump’s personal lawyer.”

In Barr’s view, law enforcement should be independent, but the people carrying it out shouldn’t be.

“The attorney general, senior Justice Department officials and U.S. attorneys are indeed political,” he said in a speech Wednesday. “But they are political in a good and necessary sense.”

He added: “The Justice Department is not a Praetorian guard that watches over society impervious to the ebbs and flows of politics. Government power completely divorced from political accountability is tyranny.”

Critics argue that political accountability has been undermined by Barr’s decisions favoring Trump.

That includes moves to order a reduced sentencing recommendation for longtime Trump confidant Roger Stone, convicted of lying to Congress about his activities during Trump’s 2016 campaign; to press for charges to be dropped against former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn; and to fire the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, who had been leading investigations into Trump.

Alarmed by what they saw happening since Barr took office in 2019, almost 2,000 former Justice Department officials wrote an open letter in May calling the attorney general’s actions “unprecedented” and saying he had “assaulted the rule of law.”

Trump and his supporters have fought back, with the president saying Barr could go down as the greatest attorney general in American history. Other Republicans who had pilloried the Obama administration over what they called a cozy relationship between the Justice Department and the Oval Office have gone silent, or reversed course.

House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy said he “didn’t know anything” about Barr’s comparison of virus restrictions to slavery. Louisiana Republican Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana said he was untroubled by the comments.

“I think he’s done a superb job,” Kennedy said. “He exercised power intelligently and not emotionally.”

President Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr arrive at Andrews Air Force Base after a trip to Kenosha, Wis., Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020, at Andrews Air Force Base, Md.

Spying’ Probe

Barr is sure to spark fresh controversy if he delivers on his announced intention to make public some of the findings of the probe by U.S. Attorney John Durham of Connecticut into what the attorney general, like the president, has called “spying” on Trump’s 2016 campaign.

Nora Dannehy, a top prosecutor working on that investigation, resigned last week, with the Hartford Courant reporting that she quit partly over concern about political pressure to produce a report before the investigative work is done.

Barr has defended his actions, saying he’s restoring integrity to the Justice Department. He has also espoused his long-held belief that the president has enormous powers, having been elected by the people.

In his comments on Wednesday, Barr ridiculed those who questioned his right to override decisions by line prosecutors, something he’s repeatedly done in politically sensitive cases involving Trump allies such as Stone and Flynn.

“Letting the most junior members set the agenda might be a good philosophy for a Montessori preschool, but it is no way to run a federal agency,” Barr said. “Individual prosecutors can sometimes become headhunters. Subjecting their decisions to review by detached supervisors ensures the involvement of dispassionate decision-makers.”

For good measure, he asserted his authority over the Federal Bureau of Investigation. “As I say to FBI agents, Whose agent do you think you are?’” Barr said.

Police Abuse

Perhaps on no other issue has Barr been more public or vocal than supporting Trump’s effort to brand himself as the “law and order” candidate. Like Trump, Barr has asserted that violence during protests against police abuse has been caused largely by left-wing anarchists, even though right-wing extremists have been involved as well and most protests have been peaceful.

On Wednesday, Barr said the Black Lives Matter movement doesn’t care about Black lives but instead wants to use African Americans who were killed at the hands of police as “props” to advance its political agenda.

Barr’s efforts to bolster Trump have stretched credulity at times, refuting work done by his own department, outside experts and U.S. intelligence agencies on topics such as mail-in ballots.

The attorney general advanced the theory of a foreign adversary mass-producing U.S. ballots at a House Judiciary Committee hearing and in television interviews this month.

Those who know vote-by-mail best say that counterfeiting ballots on a scale that could affect a presidential election would be logistically impossible given safeguards already in place as well as how vote-by-mail works.

But Barr, asked for the evidence behind his view, has offered none. Instead, he told CNN that he was “basing that on logic.”

That’s put Barr in line with the president, who has warned that main-in ballots are the greatest danger to American democracy and signaled that anything short of victory in November means the election was rigged against him. Democrats are acutely aware that if the president contests the election results, he will lean on Barr to help him stay in office.

The president is “abetted in his assault on the rule of law by the most partisan and derelict attorney general we’ve ever had – who sees his role not as upholding the constitution but as hijacking taxpayer resources in order to erode it,” Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates said.

Barr is unlikely to be deterred by the criticism. He joked on Wednesday that while many of his predecessors had gone on to be Supreme Court justices, he was one of two attorneys general who went on to become attorney general again, a reference to his earlier service in President George H.W. Bush’s administration. Kennedy, the Republican senator, said that should change.

“He has great experience and he understands the role of the Department of Justice in American government,” Kennedy said. “I’ve suggested that when the president came out with his list of potential nominees for the Supreme Court, I suggested that he put Bill Barr on it.”