Bill Barr: How an ideological attorney general made Trumpism possible

Last Friday, Attorney General Bill Barr announced that US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Geoffrey Berman, was “stepping down” from his position.

The announcement caught everyone by surprise, including Berman, who quickly denied that he had any plans to resign. But the following day Barr announced that Trump had dismissed Berman, putting an end to the bizarre standoff (though Trump, later in the day, claimed he was “not involved” in Berman’s firing).

In any other administration, the firing of a US attorney who had been conducting investigations of the president’s allies would be scandalous. But this is not a typical administration and this is not a typical Department of Justice. Under Barr, the DOJ has become a political instrument for the president. Whether it’s misleading the public about the Mueller report or using tear gas to disperse peaceful protesters so that Trump could stage a photo op, or trying to fire Berman, Barr has repeatedly sacrificed the dignity of his office in order to please his boss.

If you don’t know much about Barr’s history, it’s hard to make sense of his behavior. Having already served as AG under George H.W. Bush’s administration, Barr had a solid reputation as a serious guy. When he reemerged in 2018 as Trump’s pick for attorney general, he was widely seen as a creature of the Republican establishment, and his selection was “greeted with a measure of relief” within the DOJ, according to the New York Times.

But events since have shown him to be a more than willing accomplice in Trump’s slow-motion destruction of democratic norms. Which raises the question: Why has someone like Bill Barr given himself over to an aspiring authoritarian like Trump?

To get some answers, I reached out to David Rohde, an editor at the New Yorker who profiled Barr for the magazine back in January. Beyond the obvious questions, I wanted to know who Barr really is and what’s driving his political decision-making in this moment. As Rohde put it, Barr is “a culture warrior from the ’80s” who is “fully committed” to protecting Trump. We talk about the ideology animating Barr’s loyalty to Trump and why there’s no going back for him at this point.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

What’s the most important thing people should know about William Barr?

David Rohde

I think the most important thing to understand is that he has one of the most extreme views of how powerful an American president should be.

Sean Illing

What does that mean?

David Rohde

It means that he does not believe that we should have three co-equal branches of government. He believes the president should be more powerful than Congress and the courts. In his mind, that’s the only thing that can keep the country safe when it is threatened by war, natural disaster, or economic collapse. He believes that is what the founders intended.

Sean Illing

I wonder why Barr’s radicalism wasn’t reflected in the commentary when he was first nominated by Trump. The conventional wisdom at the time was that he was a banal establishment type. Why do you think this was missed?

David Rohde

Barr has held these views consistently throughout his life. But he was seen as a traditionalist when Trump nominated him to be attorney general. In hindsight, it looks like the extremism of Barr’s views didn’t emerge during his first tenure as attorney general because the president he served then, George H. W. Bush, was a traditionalist. Bush had witnessed Nixon’s abuses and resignation. Bush accepted that the three branches were co-equal.

Working as attorney general for Donald Trump, obviously, is completely different. Trump is contemptuous of post-Watergate norms and of congressional and judicial oversight. Trump has enabled Barr to pursue his decades-long goal of increasing the power of the presidency. And Barr has enabled Trump to stonewall congressional investigations to an extent not seen since Nixon. It’s an ideologue meets grifter.

Sean Illing

But the idea of “checks and balances” is literally the basis of our constitutional system. Why does he find it so inadequate?

David Rohde

He believes that if you look at American history, it’s been the presidency that has been able to intervene when we’ve faced war or economic calamity or natural disaster. And Congress has dithered and the courts simply don’t have the mechanisms to respond. He really believes this in his bones.

In fact, I just spoke to someone who knows him well, who works closely with him, and he told me that Barr is fully committed, that he stands by every action he’s taken in this administration, from clearing Lafayette Park with tear gas to trying to fire the US attorney in Manhattan this weekend. And this person said that Barr is doing these actions because he himself believes in empowering the presidency. It is not because he’s being pressured or bullied by Trump.

Sean Illing

So he’s a real ideological warrior?

David Rohde

Yes, he’s fully committed. And if you pay attention to what he’s been saying for decades, nothing he’s doing now is all that surprising. He’s been calling for tough law-and-order policies for a long time. His reaction to the demonstrations in Washington was nothing new.

When the Rodney King riots erupted in the 1990s, Barr was attorney general for George H.W. Bush. He sent thousands of federal agents out to Los Angeles to put down the riots and saw it as a missed opportunity to crack down on gangs in Los Angeles. He agreed to bring charges against the officers who beat Rodney King, but he complained it was a missed opportunity and federal civil rights charges should have been brought against the gangs as well.

So the idea of dominating the streets, the idea of overwhelming force to bring order, is something he’s advocated for decades. It’s not something that he’s mouthing for Trump.

Sean Illing

The thing about Barr is that he’s sort of a quiet revolutionary, or at least that’s the way he comes across in your profile. He understands how power works and he’s willing to methodically transform the system from within.

David Rohde

Very much so. I mean, it’s funny watching interviews with him. He’s very measured in how he speaks, but what he is saying is very far right and deeply conservative across the board. And his actions are extraordinary, at times unprecedented, for an attorney general, from dispatching National Guard troops from multiple states all over DC, to setting up a command bunker where he oversaw all of that, to removing prosecutors and pushing for lower sentences for the president’s allies. He speaks carefully but his actions are anything but measured.

Sean Illing

How important is Barr’s Catholicism to his moral and political project?

David Rohde

I can’t read his mind and I can’t say for sure what role his faith plays, but he’s pretty open about what he believes and why he believes it. He has said things in the past that showed a kind of moral conservatism. He said, for example, that he thought crime was a result of moral failings, not poverty, at a Federalist Society symposium in the ’90s. He’s aggressively backed tough sentences in the past and today for drug crimes. And he feels that people who are religiously observant are mocked in popular culture and that practicing one’s religion consistently is under assault today by liberal elites in the United States.

Sean Illing

Barr gave a speech at Notre Dame in 2019 that most people are not aware of but it’s incredibly revealing. What stands out to me isn’t his religiosity but his profound hostility to secular culture, which he calls “organized destruction” and an engine of “moral relativism.” He really does see himself on the front lines of an epic religious and cultural struggle, doesn’t he?

David Rohde

Yeah, he does. And again, I just spoke today with someone who works closely with him. He told me that Barr is convinced that mail-in ballots are a source of mob rule, that he’s worried about mob rule in the US. He complains that tech companies, when they label the president’s tweets, are taking away the free press rights of conservatives. In other words, all of these banal conservative talking points you hear all the time — he really believes them. He’s a culture warrior from the ’80s, but he’s back in the position of attorney general 40 years later and fighting the same battles.

Sean Illing

The obsession with cultural decline is worth lingering on because it really does seem like the guiding motivation for Barr. In that Notre Dame speech, he basically blames every “social pathology” (from depression to suicide rates to violence and drug addiction) on secularism.

Do you know what he means by that?

David Rohde

He argues that the founding fathers believed that for American democracy to succeed, Americans had to be religiously observant, because religion provides a mechanism for people to control their behavior and to not abuse their power, and so those moral guideposts should come from religion, not from the government itself. And he felt that the courts made a variety of decisions in the 1960s that produced a bunch of toxic social changes.

Sean Illing

What does he actually want? Does he want a theocracy?

David Rohde

No, he wants a presidential republic where the chief executive is judged in two ways: impeachment and reelection every four years. He sees federal judges declaring Trump’s travel ban illegal or independent counsels like Robert Mueller investigating the president as improper infringements on presidential power by the judicial and legislative branches. They’re denying the president his legitimate constitutional right to run the executive branch as he sees fit.

In a speech last fall at the Federalist Society, he said part of the reason he joined the Trump administration was to halt the weakening of the presidency that he felt was going on in the Trump era, that judges and Democrats in Congress were setting dangerous precedents that would leave the country with a powerless president who couldn’t hold the country together in a crisis.

Sean Illing

What I hear when I listen to him speak is someone who has decided that democracy is too problematic, that the culture has been hijacked, and that the only response is to exercise power from the top down.

David Rohde

Well, I think what Barr believes is that the Hollywood cultural elite is forcing cultural change that most Americans oppose, and that the news media and Hollywood together are exaggerating the number of liberals in the country. And I think he believes that liberals engage in the same sort of rough-and-tumble politics as Trump. So there’s a sense that this is a game for power and you either win or lose.

There’s a fierce belief among Barr and other administration officials that whatever Trump’s problems and behavioral issues, and there are lots of them, they still believe Trump is delivering on a conservative agenda. And one person close to Barr just basically replied, “Of course we support this president and of course we’re going to continue working for him.”

Sean Illing

And what decisions or what changes is Barr reacting against?

David Rohde

He cites Roe v. Wade as the primary example. And he blames a wide variety of social problems, from children born out of wedlock to drug addiction, on what he claims is an unremitting assault on religion and traditional values by militant secularists.

Sean Illing

Barr has this reputation as a very shrewd operator but it does seem like he’s misreading the room lately.

David Rohde

Clearing protesters from Lafayette Square and the attempt to remove Berman, the US attorney in New York, were both off politically. Barr mishandled them. I think that how Trump has responded to the pandemic and the George Floyd demonstrations gives me the sense that both Trump and Barr are off their game. The fact that Trump and Barr lost two major Supreme Court decisions last week, that Berman so openly defied Barr’s order to resign, shows that their political capital could be decreasing.

So there’s an argument that Trump and Barr are just out of touch with the sentiment of this country right now. As I was saying earlier, Barr is still mouthing the same “law and order” talking points you heard in the ’80s. And even in interviews now, Barr will acknowledge that racism exists but he rejects the idea that there’s systemic racism in this country. He clearly doesn’t feel the sense of urgency that so many Americans feel.

Sean Illing

For better or worse, Barr sees this moment as his last stand, right? There’s no going back at this point.

David Rohde

He’s all in. Again, the person I spoke to who’s close to Barr says he really believes what he’s doing is right. And friends of Barr have told me that none of these views are new. And he has nothing to lose. He’s had a long, successful career. Nothing is more important to him than this right now. And I was told today Barr will absolutely be serving through the November election and the remainder of Trump’s term. He is fully committed to seeing this through.

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