One of the saddest aspects of the final months of Donald Trump?s presidency has been the deterioration of his once close relationship with his talented attorney general, Bill Barr.
It was Barr who finally exposed the Russia-Trump collusion theory to the American people as a cynical hoax invented by Trump?s enemies to undermine the legitimacy of his presidency. Not only did Barr make it clear that there was no evidence to support the charges that Trump colluded with Russia, the attorney general also launched his own internal investigation to get to the bottom of the politically motivated effort to undermine a sitting president and expose the corrupt FBI and the Justice Department officials who were responsible for it.
Barr leaves his post as attorney general with the same politically independent attitude with which he assumed it for a second time almost two years ago. Barr had not been a political supporter of Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign for the GOP presidential nomination. Barr had been out of national politics since serving from 1991-1993 as attorney general for President George H.W. Bush, and had only agreed to come out of semi-retirement to replace Jeff Sessions as attorney general because he was disturbed by the political radicalization of the DOJ and the FBI during the Obama administration.
Barr was soon recognized as the most effective member of Trump?s cabinet, and quickly became a main target of Trump?s political enemies. But the alignment between Barr?s dedication to traditional DOJ standards of impartiality and Trump?s partisan political interests began to diverge as the 2020 election approached.
Trump had expected Barr to pursue criminal issues arising during the presidential campaign and election. These included the emergence of new evidence in the ongoing FBI investigation of Hunter Biden?s corrupt influence-peddling schemes involving foreign business interests, and evidence of Democrat fraud in manipulating the vote count. But Barr refused to comply, calling such actions inappropriate political interference in the mission of the Justice Department. Barr also refused to allow federal prosecutor John Durham, to whom he had assigned the investigation into the origins of the 2016 collusion hoax, to be rushed into announcing his findings in time to influence the outcome of the 2020 election.
Trump was furious, and began to publicly criticize his attorney general ? but Barr held his ground. Even after Barr had submitted his resignation, he refused to simply walk away. Just two days before he was to leave office, Barr appeared before reporters at a press conference to make it clear that he would not give in to the intense pressure from Trump and his allies to order the Justice Department to take what Barr believed to be inappropriate actions against the president?s political enemies.
BARR REFUSES TO INTERVENE IN THE ELECTION
Barr had angered Trump by his refusal to intervene in support of the president?s claim that he had been the victim of organized Democrat voting fraud which caused him to lose several key states in which an honest vote count would have resulted in Trump being declared the winner. Barr told the Associated Press weeks ago and repeated again at his Monday news conference that he would not intervene because the DOJ had not seen sufficient evidence of election fraud ?on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election.?
Note that Barr did not deny that voter fraud on such a scale had taken place. What he said was that the Justice Department had looked but not found enough evidence to prove in court that vote fraud had robbed Trump of the electoral victory he deserved.
What Barr implied was that if he had intervened without such evidence, he would have been rightfully accused by Democrats of political interference with the electoral process. Trump may be right in claiming that he actually won the election, but Barr understands that knowing that you are right and being able to prove it to the extent of convincing a court of law to overturn the results of a national election, are two very different things.
Barr was also asked about reports that Trump was considering an executive order of questionable legality to have the Department of Homeland Security seize and examine voting machines around the country for evidence of tampering. Barr?s response was a flat rejection of the idea, stating that he saw, ?no basis now for seizing machines by the federal government.?
WILL THE HUNTER BIDEN PROBE CONTINUE?
Barr was also asked if he thought it would be appropriate to appoint a special prosecutor to continue the FBI?s investigation of possible tax fraud by Hunter Biden, even after his father, Joe Biden, enters the White House on January 20. Trump was furious with Barr for ordering DOJ officials not to talk publicly about the Hunter Biden investigation before the election, to avoid creating the impression that the DOJ was trying to influence the election?s outcome.
Last week, Trump predicted that the Hunter Biden investigation would be quietly killed soon after Joe Biden takes office, and demanded that Barr appoint a Special Counsel who would have the power to keep it going. But Barr said at the press conference that such action was not necessary, because federal prosecutors in Delaware were handling the case ?responsibly and professionally.? Therefore, he added, ?I have not seen a reason to appoint a special counsel, and I have no plan to do so before I leave.?
The statement reflects Barr?s faith that he has succeeded in re-establishing the standard of strict independence and impartiality for DOJ prosecutors and policies. But Trump and his supporters view that assumption by Barr to be politically naive. They assume that, based on past performance, once Biden and his Democrat appointees take control of the Justice Department, they will re-institute the partisan political agenda which had controlled its policies and actions throughout the Obama years.
The only current case on which Barr saw the necessity of appointing a Special Counsel was the investigation by Connecticut US Attorney John Durham into the origins of the FBI?s 2016 ?Crossfire Hurricane? investigation into allegations of collusion between Russia and the Trump presidential campaign. Barr gave Durham the protected legal status of Special Counsel this October, but once again kept the move secret until after the election to avoid the appearance of trying to influence its outcome.
A DURHAM PROGRESS REPORT
In an interview with Wall Street Journal commentator Kimberly Strassel last week, a few days after he submitted his letter of resignation to President Trump, Barr reported on the findings of the Durham investigation so far. He also explained why it has taken so long to produce results, disappointing Trump and his supporters who had expected Durham to finish up and produce indictments against those who had engineered the Russian collusion hoax before the election.
First, Barr noted that Durham had to wait to begin his work until the end of 2019 so as not to interfere with the related investigation into the FBI?s surveillance of Trump campaign advisor Carter Page conducted by DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz. A few months later, the pandemic resulted in the suspension for six months of the federal grand jury Durham was working with, preventing him from getting the subpoenas he needed to force witnesses to testify.
?I understand people?s frustration over the timing,? Barr said, but insisted that Durham is making ?significant progress.? Barr added that while ?there are prosecutors who break more china, so to speak. . . they don?t necessarily get the results.? He also expressed confidence that Durham?s new Special Counsel status ?will ensure it goes public? even under a new Biden administration.
Barr said that the results of the investigation had already convinced him that there was no inappropriate spying by CIA or foreign agents on the Trump campaign before the official July 2016 start date of the Crossfire Hurricane FBI investigation. Barr said that Durham is now focused on ?the conduct of Crossfire Hurricane, the small group at the FBI that was most involved in that,? as well as ?the activities of certain private [unnamed] actors.?
Durham has publicly stated he?s not convinced the FBI had an adequate ?predicate? to launch the investigation, in light of a declassified document showing that it was warned in 2016 that the Clinton campaign might be behind the bogus Russian collusion claims.
Barr shares that skepticism, telling Strassel, ?Of course the Russians did bad things in the election, but the idea that this was done with the collusion of the Trump campaign ? there was never any evidence. It was entirely made up.?
Durham is also looking into the origins of a January 2017 intelligence ?assessment? released by the Obama administration that claimed Russia ?developed a clear preference? for Trump in the 2016 election.
During Barr?s Monday press conference, he publicly broke with Trump on a more recent issue unrelated to the 2020 presidential election. Barr said that the hack of critical industrial software produced by the Texas-based IT management company SolarWinds, and used for critical functions by many US government agencies and private companies, ?certainly appears to be? the work of Russia.
It was announced last week that the SolarWinds breach is being investigated by a multi-agency federal task force, including the FBI, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
In blaming the Russians, Barr agrees with the conclusion of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the rest of the national security establishment. But President Trump said in a tweet that concerns about the hack have been exaggerated by media reports, and suggested that China, rather than Russia, might be responsible.
?The cyberhack is far greater in the fake news media than in actuality,? Trump wrote. ?I have been fully briefed and everything is well under control. Russia, Russia, Russia is the priority chant when anything happens because [mainstream media] is, for mostly financial reasons, petrified of discussing the possibility that it may be China (it may!).?
By contrast, Pompeo, in an interview with conservative talk show host Mark Levin, expressed serious concern about the attack on America?s cyber infrastructure and critical information systems. ?This was a very significant effort, and I think it?s the case that now we can say pretty clearly that it was the Russians that engaged in this activity,? Pompeo said.
WHY BARR TOOK THE JOB
In his interview with Strassel, Barr explained that his decision to take the job of attorney general two years ago was based on his desire to end the abuse of the power of the Justice Department. ?The Department of Justice was being used as a political weapon [by a] willful if small group of people [trying to] ?topple an administration,? Barr said. ?Someone had to make sure that the power of the department stopped being abused and that there was accountability for what had happened.?
As the Justice Department?s in-house expert on constitutional law, prior to serving as President Bush?s attorney general, Barr was an advocate for the unitary executive theory, which holds that the Constitution gives the president total authority over the executive branch of the federal government. Barr believed that this legal principle made Trump effectively immune to criminal prosecution, and undermined the authority of Special Counsel Robert Mueller to pursue an investigation whose aim was to accuse the president of obstruction of justice for firing FBI Director James Comey. In June 2018, Barr, as a private citizen, sent a 20-page memo to the DOJ outlining the legal basis for his conclusion that the Mueller investigation was illegitimate and eroding the constitutional power of the presidency.
Six months later, Trump offered Barr the job of attorney general. He promptly won the president?s gratitude for neatly disposing of the Mueller investigation by making it clear to the American people that after more than two years of digging, Mueller and his anti-Trump prosecutors failed to find evidence to back up the charges of wrongdoing against the president.
In his interview with Strassel, Barr said he was disappointed in Mueller because his investigation should have exposed the politically-motivated wrongdoing by senior FBI and DOJ officials in opening the probe into Trump and his campaign in the first place. ?The Mueller team seem[ed] to have been ready to blindly accept anything fed to it by the system,? Barr told Strassel. ?[This] is exactly what Department of Justice should not be.?
Democrats then accused Barr of acting as Trump?s defense attorney, failing to understand that Barr?s main motivation and goal as attorney general was to restore the badly compromised reputation of the Justice Department and the impartial and independent pursuit of ?one standard of justice? for all Americans.
In that role, Barr made a series of independent decisions on politically-charged criminal cases arising out of the Mueller investigation which wound up supporting Trump?s friends and supporters ? but which Barr insists he decided upon their legal merits, in strict accordance with traditional Justice Department guidelines.
MAKING THE TOUGH DECISIONS
Barr told Strassel that in his opinion, the recent reluctance of Justice Department prosecutors and officials to act decisively to resolve politically sensitive issues has been largely responsible for the decline in the department?s efficiency and reputation. Barr said he saw it as his role as attorney general to make those decisions when others refused to do so. ?Nobody wants to take responsibility anymore,? Barr lamented. ?They wring their hands and push issues around the bureaucracy and trade memos for months. [I said] ?Bring it to me! I?ll make the decision. That?s what I?m here for!??
During his January 2019 Senate confirmation hearing, Barr explained why he was prepared to follow his conscience in carrying out what he saw as his duties as attorney general. ?I?m in a position in life where I can do the right thing and not really care about the consequences,? he declared.
Time and again, as Trump?s attorney general, Barr did not hesitate to make those tough decisions, regardless of the political reaction to them:
Should the criminal charges that the FBI ginned up against Michael Flynn be dismissed? Yes.
Should an effort be made to stop politically motivated investigations and surveillance of US citizens, such as Carter Page? Yes.
Should a criminal referral be made against the president of the United States for a suggestion he made during an official phone call with the president of Ukraine? No.
Should the overly harsh sentencing recommendation filed by federal prosecutors against longtime Trump friend Roger Stone be overruled by the attorney general? Yes.
Should the Justice Department respond to political demands for intervention from the left or from the right? No, never!
It was Barr?s refusal to act in accordance with Trump?s expectations that he would intervene on the president?s behalf against Democrat wrongdoing, both before and after the election, that finally strained the relationship between the two to the breaking point, forcing Barr to submit his resignation.
Barr?s statements confirming his political independence from the president at the Monday press conference enabled him to step down as attorney general with his head held high. They are powerful refutations of the claims that he served as President Trump?s political lackey.
The disappointment expressed by Trump and his supporters in Barr?s decision not to intervene in political issues surrounding the outcome of election are understandable. Barr admits that they may result in some criminal activities going unpunished, but that, he told Strassel, is because the American criminal justice system is ?designed to find people innocent. It has a high bar? for proving and punishing guilt ? and that, Barr believes, is the way it should be.
Barr believed that his prime mission as attorney general was to restore that system to its original principles, despite any short-term political costs to the president of his actions or inactions that resulted. He has now taken leave of that post with no regrets or apologies.