By Ruth Marcus [December 14, 2020]
William P. Barr told friends, when he was tapped for attorney general two years ago, that he was returning to the position to help save the Justice Department. Barr failed spectacularly at that task and ruined his reputation in the process.
Nothing made that more clear than the bootlicking letter of resignation he submitted Monday to President Trump.
No aspect of Barr’s departure is normal. Cabinet officials do not leave administrations to spend more time with their loved ones — the president tweeted that Barr wanted to “spend the holidays with his family” — 37 days before the end of a presidency.
When Cabinet secretaries do leave, they tend to use their letters of resignation to laud the public servants who worked with them. Barr’s fired predecessor, Jeff Sessions, thanked “the hard work of our prosecutors and law enforcement around the country,” adding, “I am particularly grateful to the fabulous men and women in law enforcement all over this country with whom I have served. I have had no greater honor than to serve alongside them. As I have said many times, they have my thanks and I will always have their backs.”
Barr choked out a single sentence — actually, a single, semi-coloned phrase in a much longer sentence — praising the department’s work supporting “the men and women of law enforcement who selflessly — and too often thanklessly — risk their lives to keep our communities safe.”
He saved his praise-heaping for the man who had spent the weekend bellyaching about Barr for failing to go after Hunter Biden — or, more precisely, for failing to break the law by disclosing an investigation into Biden before the election, when it might have helped Trump’s reelection prospects.
“Why didn’t Bill Barr reveal the truth to the public, before the Election, about Hunter Biden. Joe was lying on the debate stage that nothing was wrong, or going on – Press confirmed,” Trump tweeted Saturday. “Big disadvantage for Republicans at the polls!”
In a Fox News interview that aired Sunday, Trump complained, “Joe Biden lied on the debate stage he said there’s nothing happening, nothing happening, and Bill Barr should have stepped up” and revealed the investigation. “Bill Barr, frankly, did the wrong thing,” said the man who claimed to have fired former FBI director James B. Comey for his pre-election statements in 2016 about the Hillary Clinton investigation.
In the face of this, Barr’s letter was larded with nothing but adulation for the man who had been trashing him for weeks. The missive contained 18 uses of the word “you” or “your” to refer to Trump, as in: “Your record is all the more historic because you accomplished it in the face of relentless, implacable resistance.” And, “You have restored American military strength. By brokering historic peace deals in the Mideast you have achieved what most thought impossible.”
Fawning is too mild an adjective to describe this remarkable document. The word lickspittle has been understandably overused during the Trump years, but Barr’s letter demands its redeployment.
For this craven performance, Trump bestowed a measure of graciousness as he tweeted out Barr’s departure. “Our relationship has been a very good one, he has done an outstanding job!”
As attorney general, Barr at times refused to go to the dishonest lengths that Trump seems to demand of every subordinate. He expressed exasperation with Trump for tweeting about ongoing criminal matters such as the sentencing of Trump ally Roger Stone, saying, “I cannot do my job here at the department with a constant background commentary that undercuts me.”
More recently, Barr infuriated the president by daring to contradict Trump’s claims that the race had been stolen through widespread fraud — although Barr took pains to open his resignation letter by outlining the department’s continued hunt for wrongdoing. I have little doubt we will learn of more deranged Trump demands that Barr resisted behind the scenes.
Yet the puzzle of Barr’s tenure remains. It’s no surprise that Barr would zealously embrace an extreme vision of presidential power. Barr not only brought those views with him, he also laid them out in a memo that served as an application for the job. It’s no surprise he would be a strident voice in the culture and ideological wars — although Barr’s description of pandemic restrictions as “the greatest intrusion on civil liberties” since slavery was jaw-dropping.
But Barr as Trump’s attorney general went so much further than his conservative convictions would have required. He became not only the defender of the presidency but also the defender of this president. He radically mischaracterized the conclusions of the Mueller report before its public release. He took extraordinary measures, stepping in to overrule career prosecutors, to shield Trump associates such as Stone and former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
He ordered the clearing of Lafayette Square during racial justice protests last summer so Trump could stride to his Bible-holding photo op in front of St. John’s Church.
He stepped far outside his proper role as the nation’s chief law enforcement officer to become a fervent advocate for Trump’s reelection. Electing Biden, he warned, would mean the United States was “irrevocably committed to the socialist path.”
Barr’s behavior in office managed to make us nostalgic for the good old days of Jeff Sessions. I shudder to think: In the uncertain month to come, will we find ourselves yearning for Barr?
Ruth Marcus is deputy editorial page editor for The Washington Post. She also writes a weekly column.