Attorney General William Barr announced his resignation on Monday, effective next week, shortly after the Electoral College formally confirmed that Joe Biden would be the next president. Barr’s premature resignation — he’ll be gone about a month before President Donald Trump’s term is completed — combined with his unwillingness to formally participate in Trump’s efforts to overturn the results of the election are almost certainly an attempt by Barr to return to the mainstream respectability he enjoyed, however unearned, before joining this administration.
But don’t be fooled by his one modestly good act of not helping the president completely gut American democracy. Barr’s performance as attorney general should be judged by comparing him to his predecessors, rather than by Trump’s expectation that he should have his own Roy Cohn in the office. By the former metric, Barr is arguably the worst attorney general in American history.
Barr's resignation letter, in fact, reminds us of his original sin: covering up the Trump campaign’s cooperation (if not collusion) with Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 election, which Barr referred to as “the effort to cripple, if not oust your administration with frenzied and baseless accusations” in his letter. Barr, in fact, only got the job in significant measure by writing an unsolicited memo construing presidential power so broadly that, were his reading of the law truthful or accurate, it would have been impossible for Trump to have done anything at all that would have ever justified Robert Muller’s investigation.
But the problem is that Barr’s legal arguments have always been bogus; they’ve only ever been an effort to toady up to the man in power.
For example, in a low point of his tenure as attorney general — which is one long historical trough for the department — Barr gave a dishonestly exculpatory description of the Muller report that he described as a summary of its findings in 2019, causing Mueller himself to (privately) object. But filling the vacuum left when Mueller made the willfully naïve decision to refuse to draw firm conclusions, Barr successfully created a false narrative that there was no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian interventions into the 2016 elections. (The August report issued by the Republican-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee demonstrating a substantial web of ties between the Trump campaign and Russian attempts to influence the campaign in his favor got far less attention.)
That was, of course, far from the only case of Barr acting like Trump’s personal attorney rather than the attorney general of the United States. Barr also dropped the case against Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who had pled guilty to federal crimes. He fired the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, Geoffrey Berman, which everyone (including Berman) assumes was in retaliation for the division’s investigations into Trump and his associates; he also tried to lie by claiming that Berman had resigned.
Barr also personally ordered the violent dispersal of lawful protestors from Lafayette Park in Washington so that Trump could do a photo-op in the midst of the George Floyd protests. And, while covering up the evidence of the Trump campaign’s cooperation with Russia, he opened multiple politically motivated investigations into people who investigated that case. Finally — in a particularly remarkable case of his working on Trump’s behalf — he attempted to shield Trump from the defamation lawsuit filed by E. Jean Carroll by arguing that Trump was acting in his capacity as president when he denied knowing Carroll before he assumed office and thus could not have sexually assaulted her as she alleges.
Barr’s efforts to boost Trump continued through the 2020 campaign. Most notably, he ordered the top federal prosecutor in Pittsburgh to investigate the conspiracy theories about Joe and Hunter Biden brought to the FBI by Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor turned Trump personal attorney. While in marked contrast to the disastrous decision by then-FBI Director James Comey (who was fired by Trump in 2017) to ignore departmental norms and inform Congress about the briefly reopened investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server in 2016, Barr did not make these investigations public during the campaign. But giving a personal Trump employee special access to the FBI is a highly corrupt act, and “handled FBI investigations of a presidential candidate better than James Comey” is the lowest bar imaginable.
It is also the lowest bar imaginable that Barr — again, the attorney general for the United States of America — publicly undermined Trump’s outrageous lies about widespread voter fraud being responsible for his election defeat. While it is good that Barr was — unlike most elite Republicans — unwilling to go along with Trump’s schemes to overturn and/or delegitimize the election after he clearly lost, “refusing to help install Donald Trump as a dictator, contrary to the will of the electorate” is the absolute bare minimum of what can be expected of a responsible public official, let alone the top law enforcement official, and is not an act worthy of fulsome praise.
And it’s also worth noting that Barr has ordered and will oversee an unprecedented number of executions on his way out the door — deaths the president has reportedly told confidants that he is “excited” about and hopes to have as many of as possible.
Barring any highly unlikely last-minute judicial interventions in the next five weeks, 15 people will have been executed by the Trump administration by the time he leaves office, which will be five times the three executions that had been carried out by the federal government in the past 50 years. The two most recent executions are the first to be carried out by a lame-duck president since Grover Cleveland in 1889.
And what’s worse, both of the most recent executions are legally shaky. As observed in the dissenting opinions of the indefatigable Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Brandon Bernard was executed despite the fact that the prosecution made patently false claims about his involvement in a gang, and those claims were critical to his capital sentence for a murder that he did not personally commit. In the other case, Alfred Bourgeois was executed although he had a strong claim for being mentally handicapped, which would make his execution illegal both under federal statute and controlling Supreme Court precedent. But Barr was determined to make sure all of these prisoners died on his watch.
It is perhaps appropriate that Barr’s tenure ends in bloodshed and shoddy legal arguments. Standards for conduct in the contemporary Republican Party have become so debased that Barr might well be able to leverage his refusal to enable Trump’s anti-democratic impulses to integrate back into the infamously ethically flexible world of legal elites.
But the rest of America — and history — should judge him more harshly. Donald Trump is the worst president in American history, and Bill Barr was all too willing to be his fixer and enabler, rather than obeying his own oath of office and acting in the public interest.