Attorney General William Barr promised he would do this. In a speech before the Federalist Society last November, Barr laid out his plans for a new, shockingly authoritarian form of government—one he claimed we’d actually been living under since the country’s founding. He recast the American Revolution as a desperate fight against parliamentary government and praised the framers for the “miracle” of creating a strong executive branch.
The Republicans in attendance, all members of a group which claims to honor the freedoms enshrined in our Constitution (unless you’re black or a woman who desires medical care) did nothing. They didn’t call the cops. They didn’t call their congresspeople. They didn’t rush home to their universities and raise the alarm about the despotic lunatic who had somehow cajoled his way into real legal power. They just sat there, politely clapping and probably daydreaming about new judges they could appoint. Everybody knew then what damage Barr was willing to do to the American rule of law, and nobody did anything to stop him.
Three months and one impeachment trial later, Barr is making good on his threats. While Donald Trump was declared king by the Republican Senate, it’s Barr who has been truly unleashed. He’s seemed to take acquittal as proof that his monarchal theory of executive power is right, or at the very least has correctly absorbed the information that there is no will in the Republican Party to stop him.
Since the end of impeachment, Barr has initiated a crackdown on “sanctuary cities,” filing three lawsuits trying to force the states to bow to Trump’s xenophobia. He’s started the process of investigating Trump’s political rivals (the president’s demand for an investigation into Hunter Biden, with the help of dirt dug up by Rudolph Giuliani, is now underway). And, over the past few days, he has intervened to try to spring Trump’s cronies from punishments for crimes they’ve already been convicted of.
Barr is the star of this newest low for the Trump regime, but the entire Republican Party, both inside and outside of government, owns this current assault on the rule of law. Every one of them. Including current darling Mitt Romney. They may furrow their brows and performatively despair, but every Republican is responsible for laying the infrastructure of bad faith and partisan hackery that is bringing the entire Department of Justice to its knees. Republicans crying about Barr now are the same ones who supported the legalized religious fanaticism of John Ashcroft, the legalized torture dreams of Alberto Gonzales, and the unwashed bigotry of Jeff Sessions. William Barr is not an outlier. He is the logical result of a Republican agenda decades in the making.
Republicans are gonna Republican. They will find a way to get to “yes” on any legal theory or assertion of power, anything at all, so long as the Federalist Society tells them that this is the one true way the founders intended for them to win. The Republicans have always used “law and order” merely as code for keeping women and minorities in check. So it’s not surprising to see a Republican administration discard the rule of law when they think doing so will advance their agenda. And nobody should be surprised that when Republicans lose power they’ll go back to whining about the rules.
Republicans are to blame for this current abomination, but they had a lot of help. While Republicans have been working tirelessly to bring about one-party rule in this country, so-called institutionalists have stood by, clutched pearls, and myopically managed their little aisle of the store while the rest of the building burned. Now that their institutions are under attack, they wonder why there’s nobody left to come to the rescue.
This week, four assistant US attorneys resigned, seemingly in protest of Barr’s meddling in the Roger Stone prosecution. These people were veterans of the Robert Mueller investigation and dedicated public servants.
Their resignations are noted, but come too late in the game, with too little impact. The time to resign over William Barr was when William Barr was appointed. It was when Barr came into office on the wings of a 20-page memo—the one in which he argued that the president of the United States could not be found guilty of obstruction of justice—that resignations might have shown real institutional resistance to this man. It was when Barr was allowed to put a stop to the Mueller investigation that the Mueller people should have spoken out. It was after the executive power speech in November that people of good faith and conscience should have publicly broken ranks with the man.
And you’ll note, it’s only the four guys who worked on this one Stone case who finally decided to quit rather than be part of the normalization of Barr’s effort. There are around 5,300 assistant US Attorneys in this country, all under Barr’s ultimate authority. Many of them understand that what Barr is doing is wrong. All of them could be employed with high-paying jobs at law firms, lobbying groups, or law schools by the time their next mortgage payment is due. En masse resignations from them might spark the public consciousness, or at least cripple the ability of their offices to do their work for a time.
But almost all of them are staying. It’s the classic, useless, institutionalist response. Barr isn’t directly threatening their work (today), so they shrug and stay and fiddle with their cases while the rest of the institution burns. They’ll tell themselves they’re the “adults in the room.” They’ll write books and give speeches (later) about all the “really bad” things they think they’re preventing from happening by staying. Oh, they’ll take the lucrative job offer eventually—putting kids through college is expensive, you know—just not now, and not all at once, when their protest could mean something.
When Barr comes for one of their cases and undermines their work and Trump calls them out on Twitter, they’ll find their courage. But not a moment before.
It’s not just the lawyers. The Trump administration has exposed this kind of institutional rot throughout the government. Deep state, my ass. Our government is full of people who know better but choose to normalize this authoritarian regime.
It would be one thing if the people who stayed understood themselves to be saboteurs—double agents working behind the lines to actively destroy the regime at great personal risk.
But they’re not. And we know they’re not. We know because we haven’t seen any of the documents. Trump’s tax returns remain a secret; Trump’s conversations are apparently not recorded; Trump’s internal machinations are never released unless Adam Schiff subpoenas them, and only then if the guy who has the texts isn’t writing a book. Nobody wants to be the next Edward Snowden. Very few people even want to be Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman—especially now.
Opposition is what happens when you are willing to fight for something. Resistance is what happens when you are willing to die for something. Trump has faced near-constant opposition, but he has yet to face true resistance. The Republicans are complicit, the institutions are weak, and the Democrats… we keep waiting for a savior (Barack! Bernie! Bloomberg!) who will swoop in and fix everything.
Barr knows this. He knows the only pushback he’ll receive will take the form of bitching and moaning. He knows the very institution he attacks will roll over for him. He knows that whenever his tenure is up, there will be a car waiting for him to take him to Fox News, not to jail.
Barr is happening because we let him happen. He is fueled by our slacktivism. I don’t know how many thousands of protesters would have to demonstrate for how many weeks to grind the Justice Department to a halt and force Barr to resign and flee into exile in Ukraine. But I know our country is too decadent and weak to do that.
Barr knows it too.