Members Only | February 14, 2020 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
Principled or Patsy? Interpreting Barr
How much benefit of the doubt are you willing to give him?
The United States Attorney General went on ABC News Thursday to “rebuke” the president, “attack” the president, “push back” against the president, or whatevs. The Washington press corps can be more trouble than it’s worth. It loves conflict, and it loves giving senior government officials an endless supply of benefit-of-the-doubt.
Bill Barr is under fire. He meddled with the sentencing recommendations for Roger Stone, Trump’s friend convicted last year for lying to the US Congress, among other things. Prosecutors said he deserved as many as seven years in federal prison, per Justice Department guidelines. Barr reined them back, instead recommending three to five years. Turns out this was the second time Barr got into the way. Michael Flynn received the same preferential treatment. The judge in Stone’s case has the final say.
There’s more at stake than the president’s criminality, though.
Barr undermined prosecutors the day after the president said on Twitter his friend was getting a raw deal. Trump suggested, moreover, that the real criminals were the people prosecuting Stone, particularly Robert Mueller. On Tuesday, all four prosecutors associated with the special counsel’s office quit en masse. The New York City Bar demanded Thursday an investigation by the inspector-general. Nancy Pelosi said the president “abused his power” again. In extremely-Nancy-Pelosi-voice, she said: “The attorney general has stooped to such levels. What a sad disappointment to our country.”
So Barr went on ABC News. In short, the attorney general said, I am my own man. I do not take direction from the president. But then he said something perplexing. “I’m going to do what I think is right. And you know … I cannot do my job here at the department with a constant background commentary that undercuts me,” he said.
He meant the president’s tweeting.
Now, there are two ways of looking at this. Each interpretation of “I cannot do my job here” depends on how much of the benefit of the doubt you are willing to give Barr.
If you give the attorney general 100 percent of the benefit of the doubt, as the press corps is wont to do, that could mean Barr “really is angry,” as Charlie Sykes said. “Perhaps his institutionalist instincts really did finally kick in, the vestiges of his conscience stirred—and dammit, he just had to take a stand for the rule of the law.”
But, if you give the attorney general zero percent of the benefit of the doubt, as most of the president’s critics are wont to do, you come to a different conclusion. As Charlie Sykes said: “Or maybe he was just annoyed that Trump was giving away the game.”
Let’s put this another way.
“I cannot do my job here” could mean Barr can’t administer neutral justice and equal protection under the law while Trump creates the appearance of unethical conduct. Cue headlines saying Barr “rebuked,” “attacked” or “pushed back” against Trump.
Or! “I cannot do my job here” could mean Barr can’t continue to get away with covering up the president’s crimes while the president is crowing about it.
I say pick Door No. 2.
There’s more at stake than the president’s criminality, though. In response to Barr’s TV appearance, Trump said, again on Twitter, that while it’s true he never asked Barr to get involved in a criminal case, he nevertheless has the “legal right” to do just that. To translate this from the original Trumpese: “This is how I ask without asking.”
More serious, however, are the implications of this claim. When a president claims the “legal right” or, as he did Wednesday, “the absolute right” to interfere with the neutral administration of justice, that means something all Americans should worry about.
One, it means equal treatment before the law isn’t equal. It can’t be. Not when friends of the president get off easy for crimes everyone else would be punished for. Two, it means the president isn’t bound by the law or even above it. He is the law. He is the embodiment of justice itself. That means the administration of justice and the rule of law are anchored the the whims of the president. Three, and most worrisome, is that he can solicit, without appearing to, federal crimes beneficial to him and his friends.
Claiming the “absolute right” to undermine justice is the start of turning the federal government into a criminal syndicate. That is, after all, what government is in nations like Russia. The line there between government official and mobster is no line at all.
We are all long way from that, of course, and we may never get there.
Not if we stop giving people like Bill Barr the benefit of the doubt.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.