William Barr is going out a winner.
When I wrote my obituary for the George W. Bush administration a few weeks before the Obama inauguration, I argued that Bush will go down in history as one of the most “successful” presidents of the modern age. This contention was greeted with, shall we say, an adult dose of consternation and wrath. Those ruinous tax cuts? September 11? Iraq and the WMD? The racism? The obliterated economy? Dick Cheney? How can you say he was successful?!
Because he was, and wildly so, according to the metrics of those he was actually representing. The tax cuts and the wars simultaneously enriched his friends and allies while demolishing the government’s ability to serve the people, thus fulfilling Reagan’s fused-loop prophesy: “See! Government doesn’t work.”
None of Bush’s people lost kids in the wars. None of them got crushed when the economic roof collapsed in 2008; in fact, they Hoovered up all those suddenly cheap stocks and sat on them until they recovered their value. That’s what a recession is, see? All the money goes up to the few who can afford to ride it out. Money doesn’t disappear like your lap when you stand up; it changes addresses to an uptown manse, every time. From 2001 to 2009, one way or another the money moved in with George’s friends, and they were well pleased with their man.
By this same metric, William Barr will be leaving the office of the attorney general after a highly successful run. Nonsense? Hardly. From the perspective of those who believe as he does, his time at the Department of Justice was the stuff of literal miracles.
Like Dick Cheney and other notables from the Reagan/Bush/Bush years, Barr is a life-long devotee of the “Unitary Executive” theory, which essentially states that a sitting president is all-powerful and shall not be restrained by oversight or law. It is, in essence, the Divine Right of Kings theory come back to haunt us.
Among the other “accomplishments” of that second Bush administration was a defiant expansion of presidential power, primarily at the direction of Mr. Cheney. Oversight was spurned, lawfully drawn congressional subpoenas were roundly ignored, and consequences for misdeeds were thoroughly avoided after the incoming president decided we needed to “look forward, not backward.”
Thus, the seeds for a Donald Trump rampage administration were planted, and after a few false starts with lesser mortals like Jeff Sessions, Trump had the consigliere he wanted in Attorney General William Barr… but you have to ask, now that we’re at an end of all this: Was Barr working for Trump, or was Trump working for Barr?
I strongly suggest the latter is true. Trump has no philosophy beyond “Gimme!” and “Look at me!” Barr, on the other hand, seats his deep belief in the untouchable nature of presidential power in the stony soil of hard-right Catholicism, a deeply authoritarian belief system. Service within Republican administrations going back to Bush Sr. left him frustrated with the constraints upon the executive branch. The combination of these two motivations makes for a combustible stew.
In steps Trump and his rolling war against reality, a perfect fit for Barr. The outgoing attorney general, you see, is also a crafter of reality, a warper of the visible truth. When the Mueller Report was on the verge of its redacted release, Barr threw his body in front of it with a letter and press conference that said, in brief, “Nothing to see here, folks.”
The fact that the report did bear a broad array of legally actionable behaviors by the Trump administration stalled out for two reasons: Almost nobody read the whole report, and almost everybody saw Barr’s stand-up act before its release. His version of the report’s reality became reality, and the nascent impeachment effort was doomed before it ever peeked out of the nest.
This was not Barr’s first trip to this particular rodeo. Back in 1989 when he was George H.W. Bush’s attorney general, questions were raised in Congress about the arrest powers of U.S. forces and the FBI regarding the invasion of Panama, which had been undertaken to topple and detain leader Manuel Noriega. Another report was written that confirmed a number of legal lines were crossed, including Bush Sr.’s edict that U.S. forces ignore the United Nations charter.
Barr, again in his capacity as attorney general for that administration, drafted another “cover” letter that profoundly downplayed the concerns raised in the report. Congress accepted the letter on its face, and did not get to see the actual report until 1991. When members of Congress finally read it two years later, they were stunned and infuriated to see that Barr’s letter had been a snow job meant to derail any further investigation.
By that point, however, there was a great big distracting war going on, and Barr eventually left office untouched… after, of course, a blizzard of pardons he helped draft served to forever cover up the prior administration’s crime spree that was Iran/Contra.
“People like you are still living in what we call the reality-based community,” an anonymous George W. Bush official told Ron Suskind in 2004. “You believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality. That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you are studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors, and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
Barr’s last and perhaps best trick? Doing his job the way it is supposed to be done. He recently refused to dive into Trump’s fury-fantasy about stolen elections by claiming his department’s investigation found no evidence of fraud. On the heels of this announcement, it came to light that Barr sat on a number of disturbing but questionable allegations against Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, during the presidential campaign. In other words, Barr did not pull a Comey on the doorstep of the vote. These actions are as laudable as they are shocking, given whom we are talking about.
Trump is reportedly furious at these disloyal acts — the first that undercut his election fictions, and the second that deprived him of the avenue of attack he’d been craving all throughout the campaign — which certainly led to the end of the show for the attorney general, but it’s no skin off Barr’s nose. He snipped the mooring lines to Trump’s sinking ship and gets to spend the rest of his life able to put daylight between himself and the shameful final act of this shameless administration.
In the meantime, the boundaries that define permissible uses of executive power have expanded almost beyond sight.
It would take too long to list the myriad ways William Barr served as Donald Trump’s contra-constitutional lawyer and body guard during his time at the Department of Justice. Yet who served who?
Trump is on the verge of leaving office, albeit with historically disgusting reluctance, and with it the position that has afforded him the loudest microphone of his lifetime. Though he will likely wield outsized power among Republicans after January 20, it will not be what it was in the White House. Only the fourth one-term president since Herbert Hoover lost in 1932, Trump can also expect his pockets to fill with New York State subpoenas as soon as he leaves or is removed from federal property next month. Ain’t no Barr gonna help him then.
In contrast, Barr is presently living in a Unitary Executive wonderland beyond his deepest cravings. Trump tries to manipulate reality by bellowing bombastic bullshit until everyone just gives up. It is a blunt weapon, but effective in the hands of a man like Barr, who let Trump light reality on fire while protecting him from the consequences… and when there are no consequences, executive power is expanded. A new line is drawn, way out in front of the old one.
That, to the bone, is what William Barr has craved and worked for over the entire term of his professional life. It is done now, and he didn’t have to raise his voice even once.
I would call that very successful, by the ruinous metrics of the monstrous. Unitary Executive theorists will be building statues of William Barr, whose bookish bespectacled mien belies a thirst for power that only a wrecker like Trump could quench. Mission accomplished.