A long-standing theme of Barr’s term—the perceived unfairness to Trump and his supporters of the FBI investigation of Russian interference during the 2016 campaign—has this spring become for him a nearly constant public-relations effort. Starting in April, during interviews with Fox News and other outlets, and in violation of a clear departmental rule against such public discussion, Barr has offered colorful commentary about alleged outrageous things being unearthed by the largely redundant investigation that he and a team under U.S. Attorney John Durham have been conducting since May 2019.
Among many other angry characterizations, he has described the Russian-interference investigation as “one of the greatest travesties in American history,” and promised to get to the bottom of it. His recent comments indicate that developments in the Durham investigation can be expected in the next few months—perfect timing to enhance its possible impact on the election. And Barr has made clear that he will not feel constrained from acting, including bringing possible indictments, for fear of any resulting impact on the election. The department’s now-pending motion to dismiss the prosecution against Michael Flynn, for lies to which he twice pleaded guilty, has been another context in which Barr has attacked the FBI’s investigation of Russian interference.
From this incomplete list of recent, grossly improper actions—and the fact that Barr, though publicly called out repeatedly, seems hell-bent on securing Trump’s perpetuation in office—one is well justified to wonder how this can be happening in America. A partial answer is that Barr has worked hard to render ineffective the departmental norms that were put in place after Watergate, so that he now has much greater leeway to behave as he pleases.
In place of respect for an evenhanded process predominantly conducted by career professionals dedicated to fairness and impartiality, Barr has substituted ad hoc reliance on personal confidants to second-guess or take the place of career lawyers in special situations. In place of a scrupulous avoidance of political interference or personal favor, including a long-standing policy largely curtailing communications with the White House on a range of important matters, he has substituted a willingness to act in inappropriate ways at the president’s bidding. He has joined in the undermining of inspectors general, independent watchdogs created after Watergate. Five inspectors general have been fired recently, with no public objection from Barr and in one instance with his vocal support. And he has done his best to destroy the independent stature of the United States attorneys, who are required by law to be appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Barr has engineered the removal of a few of them, some in key offices with cases of special interest to himself or the president, and replaced them where possible with trusted associates serving in an acting role, and thus subject to instant removal if they fail to do Barr’s bidding.