William Barr

Wish a Not-So-Fond Farewell to Outgoing Attorney General William Barr

His Trump toadying was absolutely awful, but still not nearly as bad as his unremittingly harsh approach to justice and policing.


Attorney General William Barr will be going home for Christmas, and not returning.

President Donald Trump dropped the news (as he has done with many resignations and terminations during his term) on Twitter, attaching to the tweet an almost comically fawning resignation letter from Barr.

Of course, it's normal for outgoing government officials to praise their (almost) ex-bosses and brag about what they've accomplished. But Barr's comically off-topic obsequious gushing is directed right at Trump's hungering ego: "Your record is all the more historic because you accomplished it in the face of relentless, implacable resistance. Your 2016 victory speech in which you reached out to opponents and called for working together for the benefit of the American people was immediately met by a partisan onslaught against you in which no tactic, no matter how abusive or deceitful, was out of bounds."

The letter goes on like this for another paragraph, entirely about Trump's accomplishments, before very vaguely mentioning what the Justice Department did under Barr, fighting the drug war and Mexican cartels and supporting "the men and women of law enforcement who selflessly—and too often thanklessly—risk their lives to keep communities safe."

Barr's last-minute exit, less than a month before Trump's presidency ends, is likely a reflection that even his most ardent supporter in the White House was unable to appease Trump and humor his fantasies that the election results are fraudulent and that he actually won a second term. The last straw was most likely the discovery that Barr had not disclosed to the public prior to the election that the Justice Department was investigating President-elect Joe Biden's son Hunter for possible tax evasion. There is an amusing irony here: The decision by former FBI Director James Comey to hold a press conference to discuss the investigation of Hillary Clinton just days before the 2016 election, which contradicted typical Justice Department protocol, was used by Trump as one of the reasons to terminate Comey. It's almost as though Trump does not actually care about proper ethics or procedures except to the extent that he gets whatever it is he wants.

Barr will most likely be remembered for running interference for Trump, describing Robert Mueller's special investigation of Russian influence on the Trump campaign as having cleared the president. In reality, Mueller's investigation report was quite clear that if Trump had not been the president, he probably would have been facing obstruction of justice charges.

It's unfortunate, truly, that Barr will be remembered mostly as Trump's craven pet because the rest of Barr's actual record as attorney general is even more worthy of scorn. Barr opposes marijuana legalization. He said he was willing to allow states to make their own decisions on marijuana legalization, but then his office launched a bunch of antitrust investigations targeting cannabis companies.

As America went through a summer of anger, protests, and violence about police abuse of minorities, Barr not only habitually took the side of police, but also basically told Americans to just shut up and do what they're told. He warned in a speech that if citizens didn't bend the knee to police, "they might find themselves without the police protection that they need." In speeches, he embraced the "warrior cop" mentality and complained in a speech at a Fraternal Order of Police conference in 2019 that, "Not too long ago influential public voices—whether in the media or among community and civic leaders—stressed the need to comply with police commands, even if one thinks they are unjust." He was mad that those days were gone and insisted that anybody who resists the police should be prosecuted, even if the police conduct was in the wrong.

Barr opposes legislation that would weaken "qualified immunity," which in many cases protects police officers from being sued when they knowingly violate citizens' rights, stating, "Qualified immunity provides breathing space for officers to do their jobs without fear that an inadvertent or unpredictable error will subject them to financial ruin. Without qualified immunity officers would be deterred from going into risky situations that are necessary to save lives."

In reality, qualified immunity has protected violent and criminal behavior by police that would have landed any of the rest of us in jail and gotten us sued. It has been used to shield police from civil responsibility for some of the most egregious violations of civil liberties you can imagine.

Finally, Barr should be remembered for his decision to fire up the mechanism of federal executions and putting (so far) 10 men to death over the course of just six months. The use of the death penalty has been declining year after year in states across the country and several have abandoned it entirely. Americans increasingly oppose its use, though it still has majority support. And violent crime has been largely declining over the past 20 years even though the feds had stopped the practice of executions.

But Barr announced in 2019 that he was reestablishing execution protocols. After fending off legal challenge after legal challenge, he started putting convicted murderers to death. Barr, under Trump, has set a modern record for executions by a single administration. Only three people had been executed at all by the federal government since 1963, all under President George W. Bush. Even after Barr leaves on December 23, there are two men and one woman he has arranged to be executed in the days just before Biden (who now opposes the death penalty) takes office.

Barr's entire tenure as attorney general undercuts any effort by Trump to present himself as a criminal justice reformer. Every fan of liberty should be thrilled that he's leaving a few weeks earlier than the end of Trump's term.