When Donald Trump was being sued by the Justice Department for housing discrimination in 1973, he turned to his personal lawyer, Roy Cohn — a man whose hypocrisy and sleazy tactics had already made his name a byword for quasi-legal skullduggery — for a way out. Cohn helped Trump and his father sue the federal government, claiming without evidence that the government’s suit, based on evidence of explicit discrimination against black rental applicants, was an effort to force the Trumps to rent to, in Trump’s words, “welfare cases.” (The Trumps eventually had to drop their suit and settle the initial one on the government’s terms.)
During his search for an attorney general, President Trump made clear he wanted Roy Cohn Redux: A fixer with the shamelessness of Michael Cohen, but with the pedigree to garner Cohn’s brand of respect from the D.C. establishment and command an army of lawyers and investigators. When his first pick, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, abruptly recused himself from leading the investigation into Russian election interference, Trump was reportedly apoplectic — and asked in front of numerous White House officials, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?”
In current Attorney General William Barr, the president appears to have found his man.
Before Barr ever took control of the Justice Department, it was clear that he was expected to focus on Trump’s needs more than the country’s. In 2017, Barr was invited to discuss joining Trump’s legal defense team. In 2018, he sent an unsolicited 20-page memo to the Justice Department and lawyers close to Trump about the special counsel’s investigation, arguing that the probe relied on a “fatally misconceived” theory. At his confirmation hearing, Barr hemmed and hawed when Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., asked whether the White House had already asked him to launch an investigation into anyone before declining to answer the question.
Once in office, he claimed to Congress with no evidence that “spying did occur” against the Trump campaign in 2016 and launched a third probe of the FBI investigation into Russian interference — attempting to enlist foreign governments in an effort that has the potential to undermine our intelligence agencies and legitimize conspiracy theories. At the close of the Mueller investigation, Barr gave a news conference in which he misled the public about the special counsel’s findings, repeating “no collusion” as if he were reading it off the president’s Twitter feed and insisting that any obstruction of justice should be ignored because “the president was frustrated.”
Recent news has revealed the extent to which Barr has debased his office in order to please his patron, from the Justice Department’s decision to ignore damning sections of the whistleblower report to its shuttering of the probe in just three weeks. At the conclusion of Trump’s now-infamous call with Ukraine’s president, Trump said he would instruct Barr to follow up on his attempts to have the foreign government investigate Joe Biden’s family — demonstrating that Trump, at least, expected the willing participation of his attorney general in an international shakedown. Even as Barr’s actions in the Ukraine scandal were being scrutinized this week, he moved the department to join a lawsuit shielding Trump’s tax returns from legal scrutiny in New York state.
Americans should know that this behavior is not normal. During the Obama administration, I served at the Department of Justice with conscientious men and women who had worked under both Republican and Democratic leaders. In some cases, I knew their party affiliations; in many others, I didn’t. It would have been unthinkable for anyone to bring personal politics to bear on their work, or to act as a hired stooge for political authorities.
The tone was set at the top: President Obama famously told new U.S. attorneys, “I appointed you, but you don’t serve me. You serve the American people. And I expect you to act with independence and integrity.” Attorney General Eric Holder spoke about the privilege of going to work at the Justice Department in order to “do the right thing.” Leaders in every division took seriously their oath to support and defend the Constitution, and to “bear true faith and allegiance to the same.”
For political appointees like me who had worked on the Obama presidential campaign, there was a sense of sanctity about justice — about ensuring that opportunity and equality could be made real for communities too often let down and left behind. I was moved by the women and men who made that effort their life’s work, and inspired each time I walked through the entrance of the Robert F. Kennedy building, where the stone etching reads, “The place of justice is a hallowed place.”
The Department of Justice is the only Cabinet agency named for an ideal. In a country that sets its course through lofty values and high principles, it speaks to what is best about us, what connects us to one another and what inspires us to build a more perfect union.
Barr has undermined that ideal and betrayed that institution. It’s time for him to go.