William Barr, a Washington fixer whom conservative columnist William Safire referred to as the “Coverup-General” when Barr previously served as the nation’s top lawman, appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.
Democrats on the committee asked Barr pointed questions about his latest cover-up project: an attempt to protect President Trump and his associates from legitimate and necessary legal and congressional scrutiny. At issue was Barr’s deliberate mischaracterization of a report from special counsel Robert Mueller that examined concerns about pro-Trump interference with the 2016 election and pointed to evidence of wrongdoing by the president’s aides and allies and obstruction of justice by the president himself. Republican senators tried to distract from a burgeoning scandal involving Barr—which blew up with the revelation that Mueller had written a letter expressing detailed concerns about Barr’s statements regarding the report, and about mounting evidence that Barr has lied to Congress—by asking lots of questions about Hillary Clinton.
Wednesday’s hearing was an empty exercise characterized primarily by Barr’s attempts to obscure his own wrongdoing with regard to the Mueller report: “I’m not really sure” and “I cannot recapitulate” and “I would analogize it” and “What do you mean by receptive?” Barr actually claimed that the memo he wrote to “summarize the principle conclusions reached by the Special Counsel” was not a summary.
At some turns, Barr sounded as if he was engaged in a desperate maneuver to avoid a perjury charge based on his previous attempts to deceive Congress. At other turns, he came off as Sarah Sanders with a law degree—a shambling propagandist seeking to create confusion.
Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, a senior member of the committee, described the messaging game engaged in by Barr and his Republican collaborationists as “totally unresponsive to…what the American people want to know.” Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a former US attorney and state attorney general, identified Barr’s testimony as “masterful hairsplitting.”
In perhaps the most remarkable exchange of the day—and one of the more remarkable in the history of testimony from senior law-enforcement officials to congressional committees—California Senator Kamala Harris raised a straightforward question: “Has the president or anyone at the White House ever asked or suggested that you open an investigation of anyone?”
Instead of answering, Barr grumbled about how he was “trying to grapple with the word ‘suggest…’”
“Perhaps they’ve suggested?” continued Harris, a veteran prosecutor and former state attorney general.
“I don’t know,” replied Barr. “I wouldn’t say suggested.”
“Hinted?” asked Harris.
“I don’t know,” said Barr, in response to a question for which the sitting attorney general of the United States should have had an answer.
So it went on a day when Barr played the part of an ill-informed yet combative partisan rather than the head of the Department of Justice.
Wednesday’s hearing left many questions unanswered. But it confirmed one thing: The United States does not currently, in any practical or realistic sense, have an attorney general.
The office of attorney general was established by the Judiciary Act of 1789 and has been filled by 84 men and women with a responsibility, according to the mission statement of the Department of Justice they head, “To enforce the law and defend the interests of the United States according to the law; to ensure public safety against threats foreign and domestic; to provide federal leadership in preventing and controlling crime; to seek just punishment for those guilty of unlawful behavior; and to ensure fair and impartial administration of justice for all Americans.”
The attorney general of the United States has never been and must never be the president’s lawyer. That is the job of the White House counsel, not the job of the chief law enforcement officer.
Yet as Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, a former prosecuting attorney and the senior member of the Judiciary Committee and the Senate, observed with regard to Barr’s testimony, “He continues to play the role of defense attorney to the president, not of attorney general of the United States.”
Lawfare executive editor Susan Hennessey reached a similar conclusion, describing Barr as “acting as the president’s defense attorney.”
That’s a somewhat generous characterization.
The truth is that Barr has returned to the role he played almost three decades ago, when he played the role of then-President George H.W. Bush’s “cover-up general.”
Barr is not serving as the attorney general of the United States. He has effectively vacated his position.
If Barr had the slightest sense of duty to the republic—if he took seriously his oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic” and to “bear true faith and allegiance to the same”—he would immediately resign.
On the evidence that Barr has no sense of duty or respect for the republic, he should be removed by a Congress that is charged by the Constitution with a responsibility to impeach and try civil officials who abuse their authority. Abandoning the duties of the office of attorney general in order to serve as the defense attorney for a lawless presidency is the very definition of such an abuse.
Senator Durbin said before the Judiciary Committee hearing that Barr “has virtually disqualified himself to be the kind of person that we expect to stand back and make sure that justice is served.”
Wednesday’s testimony removed any need for the use of the word “virtually.”
Barr is not serving as attorney general. He has no place in the Department of Justice.