By the time Attorney General William Barr tried to fire Geoffrey Berman, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, over the weekend, the Department of Justice had become an extension of the financial and political interests of President Donald Trump. No act of politicization was too blatant for the country’s top law-enforcement officer. In a little more than a year in office, Barr has used his authority to protect Trump from two investigations: that of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and then the House impeachment inquiry. He hatched his own investigation to discredit the first, personally traveling abroad to dig up evidence of a United States government conspiracy against the president. He intervened in prosecutions to try to keep the heat on a perceived Trump enemy, the former Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe; reduce the prison sentence of one Trump loyalist, Roger Stone; and drop the case against another, Michael Flynn. He put his thumb on the scale of a civil case to hide Trump’s personal finances from investigators.
Finally, during nationwide protests earlier this month, he set up a command post in downtown Washington and ordered police to use force on largely peaceful protesters near the White House, clearing the way for the president to have his picture taken in front of a historic church.
When Barr became attorney general in February 2019, Washington insiders welcomed him as a return to professionalism after the chaotic tenure of his predecessor, Jeff Sessions. It was generally assumed that a lawyer who had served as attorney general under President George H. W. Bush, then spent two decades in the corporate world, would provide the steady hand of a mainstream conservative. The conventional wisdom was wrong, for two reasons. The first can be read in Barr’s own words, a long trail of speeches and writings leading up to his current turn as attorney general. As I explained in “How to Destroy a Government,” Barr’s views have always been extreme, in several ways. His idea of presidential power is so sweeping that he sees almost any independence within the executive branch as unconstitutional. But he is also a partisan, who’s willing to suspend this expansive idea of executive power when a Democrat is president. And his conservative Catholic worldview envisions a titanic struggle in contemporary America between Christian belief and nihilistic secularism, a struggle that requires law and justice to get off the sidelines and join the forces of light. This mix is volatile because it turns democratic politics into a clash of total systems, and compromise into acquiescence with evil.