Legal ethicists no doubt cringed earlier this year when Attorney General William Barr preempted Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report by announcing that “no collusion” had occurred between President Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia. That was not what Mueller had actually said. Instead, the special counsel emphasized that “collusion” is not a legal concept and therefore made no finding on that point. As the top prosecutor in the nation, Barr had an ethical obligation to describe the law and the facts accurately to the American people.
But Barr’s misrepresentation was only the first of several legal abominations from federal-government attorneys—whose duty is to the American public and the agencies that act on the public’s behalf—behaving instead like Trump’s personal lawyers. This is no small ethical lapse.
Government attorneys are not like those in private practice, whose job it is to execute their clients’ wishes, to the extent that ethical norms and the law permit. Attorneys for the Justice Department and the White House represent the interests of the government and the public, not the individual interests of the president. The American Bar Association’s Rule 1.13(b) accordingly provides that “if a lawyer for an organization knows that an officer, employee or other person associated with the organization is engaged in action … that is a violation of a legal obligation to the organization … and that is likely to result in substantial injury to the organization, then the lawyer shall proceed … in the best interest of the organization.” For the White House counsel and the Justice Department, that organization is the United States of America.