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In this column, Due Diligence, erstwhile attorney and GQ staff writer Jay Willis untangles the messy intersection of law, politics, and culture.
During a now-infamous July phone call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, Donald Trump paired his request that Ukraine open an investigation of former vice president Joe Biden with a very specific recommendation: that Zelensky get in touch with attorney general William Barr, too. "Whatever you can do with the attorney general would be great," Trump said, according to the White House's notes of the conversation. He wrapped up the conversation by promising to have Barr call Zelensky soon. "We will get to the bottom of it," he said. "I'm sure you will figure it out."
For the whistleblower who filed a complaint about the call—a complaint that just launched the fourth presidential impeachment inquiry in U.S. history—the invocation of the nation's chief law enforcement officer was an alarming development. "Attorney General Barr appears to be involved as well," they wrote.
It isn't clear whether Trump actually looped Barr into this effort to coordinate with a foreign head of state on a clandestine probe of his political rival, and the Department of Justice has flatly denied Barr's knowledge or involvement. But the whistleblower's report alleged that this was not the first time White House lawyers concealed politically sensitive records of Trump's conversations, and lawyers in Barr's Justice Department stymied efforts to transmit that report to Congress. Once again, Barr finds himself involved in a presidential cover-up—or now, as Nancy Pelosi put it, the "cover-up of a cover-up," too.
Trump has long prized unquestioning personal loyalty in his attorneys general. When he learned that his first attorney general, longtime Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, planned to recuse himself from investigations of Russian interference in the 2016 election, an irate Trump complained that he needed someone who would "protect" him, not stand down in his hour of need. Barr, who served as attorney general during the George H.W. Bush administration and was re-confirmed to the position in February, has ably filled that role ever since: a man who sees the job as less about enforcing the law than about shielding the president from the consequences of breaking it.
The Ukraine matter is far from the first time that Barr has worked to conceal wrongdoing within the executive branch. Nearly three decades ago, he encouraged his then-boss to pardon six key figures in the Iran-Contra affair. This controversial move brought the most significant scandal in the Reagan administration, in which Bush served as vice president, to a quiet, clean end. The independent counsel in that matter, Lawrence Walsh, was irate; he complained that Bush had gummed up the investigation by withholding evidence, making misleading statements about his knowledge of the scandal, and refusing to be interviewed by prosecutors. By pardoning those already implicated, the president effectively foreclosed the possibility that the investigation would one day reach him. Upon hearing the news, Walsh publicly accused Bush of complicity in a "cover-up."
Under Trump, he quickly burnished his reputation as a presidential power absolutist. Barr auditioned for the role by circulating an unsolicited memo in D.C. legal circles in which he argued that special counsel Robert Mueller's then-ongoing obstruction inquiry was "fatally misconceived." While still a private citizen, Barr egged on Trump's efforts to politicize the investigation, publicly criticizing Mueller for having insufficient partisan "balance" on his team of lawyers. In a Washington Post op-ed, Barr hailed Trump's decision to fire former FBI director James Comey, a major focus of Mueller's obstruction probe, as the right choice. During his confirmation hearings, Barr declined to recuse himself from the Russia investigation on the basis of these statements. Even though he was named in the Ukraine whistleblower complaint, he has not recused himself from that matter, either.
These overtures earned Barr the job, and it did not take long for the president's choice to pay dividends. In March, shortly after Mueller completed his investigation, Barr released a four-page synopsis of the special counsel's long-awaited report in which he declared the report "not sufficient" to establish wrongdoing. Soon afterwards, rumors swirled that Mueller's team was displeased with Barr's summary, and behind the scenes, Mueller even contacted Barr to voice his concerns that the memo "did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance" of the report. It was an effective gambit: In the absence of other information, Trump could continue to assure the public that the report, which only Barr had seen, completely and totally exonerated him.
It was not until the Mueller report's public release some three weeks later that the extent of Barr's duplicity became apparent: Mueller and his team in fact laid out all the potential evidence of presidential wrongdoing—but, they said, existing Department of Justice precedent barring prosecutions of a sitting precedent meant that the appropriate remedy was a matter of constitutional law, not one of criminal law within their purview. "Congress has the authority to prohibit a President's corrupt use of his authority," they wrote, extending an open-ended invitation to lawmakers to impeach Trump. Thanks to Barr's initial bit of spin, though, Trump's no-obstruction-no-collusion had taken root—at least, enough to prevent a cautious Democratic Party from moving forward with impeachment at the time. "Barr has so far successfully used his position to sell the president’s false narrative to the American people," said Justin Amash, the then-Republican congressman from Michigan who has since left the party. "This will continue if those who have read the report do not start pushing back on his misrepresentations and share the truth."
Barr has also been untroubled by Trump's penchant for calling for investigations of his perceived enemies—a favorite subject of a famously paranoid president. In May, Barr evaded questions from California senator Kamala Harris about whether anyone at the White House had ever asked him to abuse his authority in this manner. "There have been discussions of matters out there that—they have not asked me to open an investigation," he allowed. When Harris asked if the White House had ever "hinted" that he should do so, he replied, "I don't know." The notion that Clinton-friendly FBI officials planted a mole in Trumpworld had been rattling around the MAGAsphere for almost a year when Barr testified in April that he, like Trump, believes "spying" occurred within the campaign's ranks. Barr conceded that he had "no specific evidence" that anything improper had occurred, but he nonetheless initiated a "broad" and "multifaceted" review of how the Department of Justice and FBI came to investigate alleged Trump-Russia connections in the first place.
His tenure has been disastrous for other reasons, too: Barr announced that the government would resume executions of federal death row inmates, ending a de facto 16-year moratorium on the practice. He declined to charge the New York City police officer who killed Eric Garner in 2014, overruling the recommendation of lawyers within his own Civil Rights Division. He has played a key role in the White House's efforts to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, a calculated move that would systematically undercount immigrants and deprive their communities of federal resources for the next decade.
But this willingness to ignore the rule of law in order to expand his president's power is the most persistent—and most consequential—theme of Barr's tenure. The Department of Justice has long prided itself on maintaining its independence from the political process, because a justice system's legitimacy depends on the willingness of those in charge to enforce the law against anyone who breaks it, regardless of the partisan fallout.
Barr, however, views the powers of his office as a political prize to be won, and uses those powers to protect the administration's friends and attack its enemies with impunity. As Maryland congressman Jamie Raskin put it, although Trump's conduct in the Ukraine scandal is the "primary offense," Barr's "prostitution of the Department of Justice for the president’s political agenda has been necessary to the president’s schemes." Trump is a lawless person, but it is Barr's quiet willingness to work the system on Trump's behalf that allows this lawlessness to flourish.
DMX's life and career have been a roller coaster of highs and lows. Now, after a year in prison, he's out and ready to start living again.
Originally Appeared on GQ