In an administration that tends toward incoherence and lunacy, Bill Barr’s great strength is the ability to sound levelheaded. The attorney general is calm, cogent, and logical—and, in contrast to many of his Cabinet colleagues, clearly well studied and qualified for his role.
Barr’s sober demeanor allows him to make a lot of arguments that sound reasonable and persuasive when delivered, as he demonstrated in a speech to Hillsdale College on Wednesday. The problem comes when you start trying to reconcile what he says with the Justice Department’s actions. It’s almost as if there are two Bill Barrs, arguing with each other. If you take what Bill Barr says when he’s posing as a wise legal theorist seriously, you should be very worried about what Bill Barr is actually doing as attorney general.
For example, although there have been accusations that Trump has improperly intervened in the Justice Department, Wise Legal Theorist Bill Barr contends that nothing is amiss, because in a democracy, the people should have ultimate control over the legal system:
The most basic check on prosecutorial power is politics. It is counter-intuitive to say that, as we rightly strive to maintain an apolitical system of criminal justice. But political accountability—politics—is what ultimately ensures our system does its work fairly and with proper recognition of the many interests and values at stake. Government power completely divorced from politics is tyranny.
The Justice Department, he adds, “is an agency within the Executive Branch of a democratic republic—a form of government where the power of the state is ultimately reposed in the people acting through their elected president and elected representatives.” (Barr later adds, “Letting the most junior members set the agenda might be a good philosophy for a Montessori preschool, but it’s no way to run a federal agency.” Referring to your employees as preschoolers might be good red meat in a speech to a conservative audience, but it’s no way to run a federal agency.)