After President Donald Trump appeared to exert what military lawyers call “command influence” over yet another Justice Department prosecution—this time that of his ally Roger Stone—Attorney General William Barr politely asked the president to be quiet and let him do his job. Barr got kudos across the political spectrum for standing up to the president and living to tell the tale, and still apparently basks in the president’s favor.
Of course, the more fanatical Trumpkins (those who tend to see in every disagreement further evidence of the other side’s depravity) reacted as if to the revelation of a new traitor. Their counterparts among Trump’s opponents were just as quick to slam the attorney general. Writing here in The Atlantic, Donald Ayer, who served as deputy attorney general under George H. W. Bush, called for Barr’s resignation:
The fundamental problem is that he does not believe in the central tenet of our system of government—that no person is above the law. In chilling terms, Barr’s own words make clear his long-held belief in the need for a virtually autocratic executive who is not constrained by countervailing powers within our government under the constitutional system of checks and balances.
Whatever you think of William Barr or his boss, it should come as no surprise that Barr has never said any of this. Ayer is almost certainly referring to, among other things, Barr’s strong belief in the “unitary executive.” Some critics have described this as a doctrine of autocratic power,. Yet the unitary-executive theory is quite mundane and has a respectable academic pedigree. Leading progressive legal scholars, such as the law professor and former Obama-administration official Cass Sunstein and Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, have deemed the theory worth contending with, and have even embraced some of its central tenets.