It’s been evident since he assumed the role of attorney general that William Barr was more concerned with advancing the political interests of President Donald Trump than with serving the cause of justice in America.
But when Barr this week ordered the dispersal of peaceful protesters gathered in opposition to racial injustice, who were hit with pepper balls and rubber bullets, in order to make way for the president’s appalling photo op, it became undeniable that he presents a clear and present danger.
An attorney general who undermines an independent Department of Justice is dangerous to our democracy, but under the direction of a corrupt president who coddles white supremacists and befriends dictators, Barr’s conduct threatens the lives and safety of American citizens.
We are in the midst of a much needed reckoning about the government's role in practicing and enabling violence against black and brown people like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others and the systemic racism that allows perpetrators to escape accountability. Barr has repeatedly demonstrated that he is unfit to lead any national effort to bring about government accountability, or even our nation’s criminal prosecutions. Now, his role in attacking protesters peacefully opposing state-sanctioned racism warrants a more urgent response.
Congress must act immediately to start the process of removing Barr before his willingness to use the power of the Department of Justice for President Trump’s dangerous political ends hurts more Americans.
Barr acts for politics, not justice
An attorney general of the United States can and should advance the policy priorities of the president. But the attorney general also has to be the impartial and independent chief law enforcement officer of the United States, acting in the interest of justice, not politics.
Barr, from the start of his tenure, showed no interest in being an independent advocate for justice. He auditioned for the job in 2018 with an unsolicited memorandum defending the president from then-still-hypothetical allegations of obstruction of justice, and soon after taking the job, he assisted Trump by mischaracterizing the Mueller report as presenting evidence insufficient to establish that the president obstructed justice three weeks before being contradicted by the release of the report itself.
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Rather than stepping away from the Russia investigation based on his demonstrated conflicts of interest, Barr opened a new investigation into the origins of the Russia probe, following up on debunked right-wing conspiracy theories, and publicly prejudged the outcome.
In recent days, Barr doubled down on this tactic by launching yet another investigation into the so-called “unmasking” of the identity of Michael Flynn by Obama administration officials. Other examples of Barr’s unacceptable politicization and corruption of the Department of Justice abound, from his apparent involvement in the department’s decision not to act on the Ukraine whistleblower’s complaint despite being implicated in the complaint to his consistent resistance to valid congressional requests for information and testimony.
Barr’s actions enable the president’s corruption, demonstrating his unfitness for the job. But two recent sets of actions have made clear just how dangerous his continued presence at the Justice Department is.
Carrying Trump's water
The independence of criminal prosecutions is sacrosanct at the Department of Justice. Barr, though, has taken specific and conspicuous steps to interfere in prosecutions for political purposes.
When the president’s longtime friend and ally Roger Stone was set to be sentenced for lying to Congress and witness tampering, career prosecutors asked for a sentence within federal sentencing guidelines. The president tweeted his outrage, and Barr took the extraordinary step of ordering the department to reverse course and ask for a lenient sentence for Stone; all four career prosecutors withdrew from the case, and one resigned from the department.
Soon after, again following public pressure from Trump, Barr’s department, without participation of career prosecutors, moved to dismiss the prosecution of the president’s ally and first national security adviser Michael Flynn, despite Flynn having pled guilty and admitted his false statements on multiple occasions. Again, a career prosecutor withdrew from the case.
Barr’s willingness to take extraordinary steps to pervert the criminal justice system to help Trump’s allies, combined with his ginning up of investigations that serve the president’s interest, raises the specter that a system premised on equal justice for all is being replaced with a terrifying reality in which the justice system is manipulated for the benefit of political allies and the punishment of those perceived as political opponents.
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Barr’s dismantling of the concept of equal justice for all took a frightening new turn this week. With his willingness to use the significant power available to him for the benefit of the president, it is important to consider the positions the president he serves has taken on racial justice issues.
A racist administration from the start
Racial animus and division has been a central theme of the Trump campaign and administration, from calling Mexican immigrants “rapists,” to the ban on Muslim-majority countries, to saying “very fine people” were on the side of white nationalists, to the separation of black and brown immigrant families at the border, to rolling back federal regulations aimed at fighting racial discrimination in housing, to revoking grants meant to combat violent white supremacy. As Trump has encouraged the militarization of police forces that has ravaged many black communities, it’s easy to forget that, in a conversation about police brutality, Barr has suggested that African Americans might lose police protections if they are disinclined to demonstrate “the respect and support that law enforcement deserves.”
Given that context, Barr’s ordering that peaceful protesters demanding action following George Floyd’s death at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer be violently removed from public space near the White House to facilitate the president’s Bible photo-op goes beyond just misusing the Justice Department to advance political aims. Attorney General Barr has actively engaged in perverting DOJ’s independence and tilting the scales of justice, already wracked with racial bias, to support Flynn and Stone — white allies of a corrupt president. His actions against those protesting yet another black man killed by government actors is perhaps the clearest example of Barr’s abuse of power and complicity in the president’s clearly racist agenda.
When the law enforcement powers of the United States are being martialed for the political gain of the president, when there is a risk that political allies may be spared and opponents prosecuted, that is dangerous to the continued functioning of a democracy. When those law enforcement powers are being used to violently suppress Americans protesting racist abuses by law enforcement for political purposes, there can be no delay in responding to this threat.
The country is reeling under the twin blows of a pandemic and the latest devastating examples of unending racial oppression. Another impeachment process is the last thing most of us want. But Attorney General Bill Barr is too dangerous to democracy and to the well-being of Americans to be left in place. He must be removed from office. Congress should start the process now.
Noah Bookbinder, a former criminal prosecutor for the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section, is the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). Follow him on Twitter: @NoahBookbinder
Donald K. Sherman is CREW's deputy director. He previously served as senior counsel on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Follow him on Twitter: @donaldonethics
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Attorney General William Barr tilts the scales of justice for Trump