Democrats Don’t Know How to Handle Bill Barr

Dems have a long list of grievances against Attorney General Barr, but the president’s ally at the Justice Department is proving an elusive target.

Lawmakers in the House of Representatives
Kevin Dietsch / Pool / AFP / Getty

House Democrats have already impeached President Donald Trump. Now they’re going after the man they call his new “fixer,” Attorney General Bill Barr.

Barr, however, is proving to be a more slippery target than the president, both physically and politically.

This afternoon, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the alleged “politicization” of the Justice Department featuring alarming whistleblower testimony. It was all about Barr—how the attorney general intervened to cut Roger Stone, the president’s longtime friend, “a break” in his sentencing for perjury and ordered the DOJ’s antitrust division to investigate marijuana companies because he didn’t like their industry.

“I believe William Barr poses the greatest threat in my lifetime to our rule of law,” testified Donald Ayer, a former Justice Department official who preceded Barr as the deputy attorney general under President George H. W. Bush, a declaration that fairly well summed up the afternoon’s proceedings. “That is because he does not believe in its core principle that nobody is above the law.”

Barr was nowhere to be found. His absence before congressional oversight hearings has become such a pattern that Democrats didn’t even bother, this time, to invite him. The attorney general, who’s been on the job for less than a year and a half, refused to testify last year about his widely criticized handling of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report, eventually defying a House subpoena to appear before the Judiciary Committee. He had agreed to show up earlier this year, but the coronavirus pandemic postponed his appearance. While two of his staffers were testifying against him yesterday, a DOJ spokesperson announced that Barr had accepted an invitation to appear before the Judiciary Committee at the end of July. Yet if the recent past is a guide, Barr’s scheduled testimony a month from now is anything but certain.

In the meantime, the Democrats’ list of grievances against Barr continues to grow by the day, to the point where if they wanted him to answer for them all, they’d need a weeklong hearing to do it.

On Friday night—three days after the Democrats announced their politicization hearing—Barr forced out U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman, who was overseeing investigations into Trump’s friends and associates as the top federal prosecutor in Manhattan. Berman initially refused to resign, and only left the job after Barr agreed to appoint Berman’s deputy, instead of a Trump ally, as the acting U.S. attorney. This morning, a federal appeals court ruled in Barr’s favor on another matter that has infuriated Democrats—the Justice Department’s move to drop its successful prosecution of Michael Flynn, the onetime national security adviser who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.

The complaints about Barr began during his first weeks in office, when his carefully staggered release of the Mueller report had the effect of neutralizing an explosive device. Then and since, in the view of Trump’s critics, the attorney general has applied his expansive view of executive power to defending the president’s interests rather than the nation’s. “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” Trump is once said to have asked, in reference to his long-deceased former lawyer, a legal pugilist who cut his teeth working for Senator Joseph McCarthy. As Democrats and an increasing number of Republicans see it, Trump eventually found him in Bill Barr.

“The sickness that we must address is Mr. Barr’s use of the Department of Justice as a weapon to serve the President’s petty, private interests,” Representative Jerry Nadler, the Judiciary Committee chairman, said at the outset of today’s hearing. “The cancer that we must root out is his decision to place the president’s interests above those of the American people.”

The committee heard from Aaron Zelinsky, who withdrew as a lead prosecutor on the Stone case after the Justice Department’s senior leadership intervened to lower the recommended prison sentence for the president’s ally, who had been convicted of lying to Congress. “I was repeatedly told the department’s actions were not based on the law or the facts, but rather political considerations, Mr. Stone’s political relationships, and fear of the president,” Zelinksy said. And the committee heard from John Elias, a DOJ prosecutor who testified that the department’s antitrust division bowed to pressure from both Trump and Barr to investigate the marijuana industry and automakers who wanted to uphold environmental standards the administration was trying to loosen.

A former attorney general, Michael Mukasey, defended Barr as acting based on the law, not politics. But Republicans on the committee largely deflected the conversation altogether, using their time less to defend Barr than to relitigate their criticisms of the Obama administration and the origins of the Russia investigation that led to Mueller’s appointment as special counsel. “Bill Barr is doing the Lord’s work by cleaning up the Justice Department so it doesn’t happen again,” Representative Jim Jordan said.

The question that loomed over the hearing was: Where does this all go, except to voters in November? House Democrats are conducting oversight by scrutinizing Barr’s actions, but the country remains consumed by a pandemic, a collapsed economy, and a reenergized movement for racial justice.

“This is the most devastating testimony I have ever seen,” Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland said, clearly trying to elevate the urgency of the moment—“an attorney general of the United States corrupting the rule of law in pursuit of a political agenda for the president of the United States.”

Yet the obvious remedy—impeachment—has already been tried on the president and thwarted by Senate Republicans. Nadler, though supportive of the move in theory, said earlier this week that it would be “a waste of time” to try to oust Barr by the same means.

“We will not let this conduct stand. Attorney General Barr will be held accountable," the chairman declared this afternoon.

It sounded like a promise as much as a threat, but Nadler didn’t say when, and he didn’t say how. And the attorney general, as usual, wasn’t there to hear it.