No one is as good at hiring an unscrupulous lawyer as Donald Trump. And now it seems that the worst of the bunch, the late Roy Cohn — the lying, cheating, and eventually disbarred attorney who represented both the red-baiting Joseph McCarthy and the president, when Trump was a young real estate developer — has been reincarnated in the form of Bill Barr. The trouble is that this time, the lawyer in question isn’t just a personal lackey or counsel to the president, but rather the attorney general of the United States.
The attorney general, while a political appointee, is bound first and foremost not to the whims and personal interests of the president, but to the law. An enduring lesson of the Watergate scandal, and the norm that attorneys general and presidents from Ford through Obama have upheld since, is that while presidents may set broad policy on law-enforcement priorities, the Justice Department should act independently from the White House when it comes to individual criminal cases.
Representative Thomas Jenckes, the Rhode Island congressman who led the charge to establish the Department of Justice in 1870, underscored the importance of federal lawyers who would act independently of politicians: “The humblest servant of the Government should not be at the mercy or the caprice of the most distinguished politician,’’ he said in an address in Boston in 1868. “Let every man who may receive a commission from the United States know that he holds it from the people, in service of the people.’’
Barr never seems to have gotten that message. His tenure has been defined by dismantling the norm of the Justice Department’s independence from partisan politics and the president’s personal interests. His intervention in criminal proceedings against one of the president’s friends last week, a wildly inappropriate move that led to the resignation of four federal prosecutors from the case, was only the latest travesty on Barr’s watch.
The prosecutors had recommended a seven- to nine-year prison sentence for Roger Stone, a Trump confidant who was convicted of seven felonies, including threatening a witness with physical harm, lying under oath, forging documents, and interfering with a congressional investigation (the results of which, coincidentally, could have damaged the president’s reputation). Barr’s memo recommending a lighter sentence followed President Trump’s tweet on Feb. 11 that called the prosecutors’ recommendation “horrible and very unfair.’’
On Thursday, amid mounting criticism, Barr tried to put some daylight between himself and the president, and complained that Trump’s tweets made it “impossible’’ for him to do his job. But even if, as Barr claims, his sentencing memo had nothing to do with the president’s tweet, he surely would have known of Trump’s sympathy for Stone. And it’s of little wonder he is upset, since the president’s tweets expose Barr yet again as not an independent defender of the law but as the servant of one man who happens to occupy the White House.
In isolation, this interference alone could be sufficient grounds to deem that the attorney general is following the president’s playbook of rewarding criminal loyalists and punishing patriots he deems disloyal to his interests instead of upholding impartial justice. But it is only the latest in a litany of offenses that Barr has inflicted on the rule of law since he was confirmed to the post on Valentine’s Day 2019.
Despite having written a 2017 memo that criticized special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s purported theory of obstruction of justice in his investigation of the link between the Russian meddling in the 2016 election and the Trump campaign, Barr did not recuse himself from overseeing and eventually whitewashing the Mueller report findings in his own summary to Congress and public statements. And then, after the Justice Department’s own inspector general found in December that there had been no political bias behind the initiation of the investigation that became the Mueller report, Barr went on the attack with the opposite message. He had already conscripted US Attorney John Durham to discredit the conclusion. Since then, the attorney general has created a special intake process for “intelligence’’ from the president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, about former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter’s activity in Ukraine. The Justice Department under Barr has also defied a congressional subpoena to explain the origin of the proposed citizenship question on the 2020 Census and tried to prevent the whistle-blower complaint about last summer’s holdup of aid to Ukraine from being shared with Congress. It’s hard to imagine having more compelling evidence of a DOJ that is at the mercy of the president’s personal interests.
Viewed through the rearview mirror, Barr’s insistence in his January 2019 Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing that he could “provide the leadership necessary to protect the independence and the reputation’’ of the DOJ is downright laughable.
There will be little appetite from House Democrats for an impeachment investigation of Barr in an election year when many want to turn the nation’s focus to the party’s positive agenda. Perhaps that’s for the best. The House Judiciary Committee will hear from Barr on March 31, and Senate Democrats are similarly eager to hold hearings on the Stone case. The House could also invoke its appropriations power, as some have suggested, to curtail Barr’s travel and investigations. But neither Congress nor voters should settle for anything less than a full-throated response to Barr’s transgressions. Members on both sides of the aisle should be publicly demanding his resignation — and they should not relent until they secure it.
The last time a president suggested he had ultimate power over federal criminal investigations turned out to be a litmus test for public servants and, in turn for the American public, of just how much destruction to democratic norms they were willing to tolerate. In 1973, two Justice Department officials, Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus, resigned in succession rather than carry out President Nixon’s orders to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox for his request of documents, in what’s now well known as the Saturday Night Massacre. Since Watergate, no president has flagrantly politicized the Justice Department without consequence. (Alberto Gonzales, one of President George W. Bush’s attorneys general, was forced out after his firing of seven US attorneys.) The Saturday Night Massacre, and its course correction for Justice Department independence, occurred only because there were people of conscience and professional principle at the DOJ unwilling to carry out the president’s bidding.
We may not have such a person at the helm of the Justice Department, but they do exist in Washington. Barr must go — and Congress must push him out.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.