On July 28, U.S. Attorney General William Barr is expected to testify in front of the House Judiciary Committee. If he follows through on his agreement to appear before Congress – an open question, since he’s blown off previous planned appearances to testify – it can’t just be a rehashing of Barr’s greatest hits of his most egregious actions nor should it get mired in the weeds. The committee should clearly lay out the extent to which he has used his position of power to help President Donald Trump in a manner that defiles the office of attorney general. If the hearing were to go well – a rigorous exposition of the truth – it could even be the swan song that should, in a normal world, force his resignation. The hearing, if successful, could also inform the public of Barr’s lack of legitimacy and credibility in serving the American public. That’s especially important as President Trump increasingly reaches for emergency powers, aided and abetted by the office of attorney general, to try to ward off an election defeat.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) recently called Barr Trump’s “fixer.” (If you look up the term on Wikipedia, Barr even shows up under a list of “notable fixers.”) He works to hide evidence of Trump’s damage to the U.S. Constitution and democracy itself, using his position as the nation’s top law enforcement official to shield the president from justice.
To avoid getting lost in the weeds, it’s important to outline the broad themes that lawmakers should pursue, and that commentators should also consider to frame the concerns. The committee would be well-advised to focus on four topics when questioning the attorney general.
First, the committee should show how Barr has repeatedly been willing to lie and corrupt the Department of Justice (DOJ) for political purposes to aid and abet the president. Instead of releasing the full report Special Counsel Robert Mueller prepared on Trump’s Russia dealings, he wrote his own summary that whitewashed the investigation. Then, Barr lied to Congress when he told lawmakers that he was unaware that Mueller was unhappy with his characterization of the report. Earlier this year, U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton said Barr displayed a “lack of candor” in the rollout of the report and that he worked to tilt the findings “in favor of President Trump,” and presenting a “distorted” and “misleading” account. To underscore the significance of Judge Walton’s findings: Barr’s summary of the Mueller Report was not simply a lie told to the media or public. It was a statement Barr submitted to Congress.
Second, the committee should demonstrate how Barr has eroded the mechanisms that are intended to hold the office of the presidency accountable. He’s done this time and again by protecting Trump’s associates amid criminal investigations. After former national security advisor Michael Flynn pled guilty for lying about conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, Barr’s DOJ moved to dismiss his case. “The department again put political patronage ahead of its commitment to the rule of law,” said former federal prosecutor Jonathan Kravis, referring to how senior DOJ officials protected Flynn. Kravis had resigned after senior administration officials intervened in the case of another Trump ally, political operative Roger Stone, who was convicted of seven federal felonies last year. At a recent House Judiciary Committee hearing, DOJ prosecutor Aaron Zelinsky testified that Roger Stone was given preferential treatment because of his relationship to the president.
Third, the committee should show how Barr is placing Trump’s political interests over those of the American people and above justice. Take the politically motivated firing of Michael Atkinson, the inspector general for the intelligence community who alerted Congress to the whistleblower complaint that led to the impeachment proceedings against Trump last year. To give Trump political cover for that action, Barr publicly praised it. Or, most recently, the bizarrely executed ousting last month of the Southern District of New York prosecutor Geoffrey Berman, who was reportedly investigating Trump and several of his associates. Thanks to courageous civil servants that have used their platform to speak up rather than being cowed by the administration, we have a clear picture of Barr’s brazen corruption.
Lastly, the committee should show how Barr’s complicity in Trump’s abuses endangers the Constitution and puts Americans at risk. In June, Barr unleashed tear-gas wielding U.S. Park Police on protestors exercising their First Amendment rights to clear the area outside of the White House so Trump could walk to a church for a photo op. We’re seeing another disturbing scenario play out now in Portland, Oregon, as protestors are reportedly being rounded up by federal authorities in unmarked vehicles and detained in secret, a blatant violation under the Constitution.
Barr has repeatedly placed his fealty to Trump over the democratic institutions he has sworn to protect. His tenure has been so damaging that a nonpartisan group of lawyers, including four former presidents of the DC Barr Association, filed an ethics complaint with the bar association against Barr earlier this week. Sixty-nine law professors at his alma mater, George Washington University, recently called on him to resign, saying, “We cannot remain silent in the wake of the damage he has done to the integrity of the Department, the rule of law, and the constitutional order.” Over 2,500 alumni of the DOJ who served in Republican and Democratic administrations signed a statement saying that the damage Barr has done to “the Department of Justice’s reputation for integrity and the rule of law require Mr. Barr to resign.”
This isn’t the first time Barr has been asked to appear before Congress and be accountable for his actions as top official at the DOJ. But it should be the last. The committee is expected to hammer on the many ways he has used his office as the nation’s top law enforcement official to place Trump beyond the law’s reach. It’s fair to hope this will lead the American people to the inevitable conclusion: Bill Barr must resign.
Editor’s note: Readers may also be interested in Joshua Geltzer, Ryan Goodman and Asha Rangappa, “Specific Questions for Congress (and News Media) to Ask Attorney General Barr,” June 22, 2020