I knew him back when we were both law clerks fresh out of school — he for one of the most conservative members of the D.C. Circuit, I for one of its leading liberals.
He was a smart guy. Honorable. Someone you disagreed with but respected.
As a young Justice Department lawyer, he wrote legal memos justifying the United States’ invasion of Panama and the practice of kidnapping suspected terrorists on foreign soil. He was tapped to serve as attorney general by then-President George H.W. Bush, and his nomination was approved unanimously by the Democratically-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee.
His big issue then was the criminal justice system. He was a huge fan of incarceration as the answer to violent crime. As it happens, history suggests otherwise, but then this was the first Bush administration, which came to office fueled by the Willie Horton campaign.
Mostly, though, he has spent his career as a lawyer, not a partisan politician. In the Justice Department, he won praise for being a strong manager. He worked both sides of the aisle as an in-house counsel and, in between all that, clocked in as a Washington lawyer. I would have thought of him as the kind of Republican who would never have fired Archibald Cox — the Watergate special prosecutor who then-Attorney General Elliot Richardson was assigned to fire but didn’t and resigned himself instead — or fired Robert Mueller.
In Barr’s first confirmation hearings for attorney general, then-Judiciary Committee Chair Joe Biden praised his “candid answer” on abortion (affirming that Roe was the law of the land) and called him “a throwback to the days when we actually had attorneys general that would talk to you.”
Certainly not what any Democrats would call him today.
The point is, I would have expected better from him. So did most of the Democrats who are calling for a fuller investigation of the attorney general and pointing to glaring inconsistencies in his statements.
Of course, he would paint Mueller’s report in the best possible light for the man who appointed him. That is what attorneys general are supposed to do. That is why former President John F. Kennedy appointed his brother. It is what President Donald Trump expected of Jeff Sessions.
But there are limits to this sort of partisan loyalty when the rule of law is at issue. You don’t mislead the public or Congress or provide misleading information to protect the president. You don’t lie.
You don’t protect the president at the expense of the truth.
If Bill Barr weren’t attorney general, I’d expect him to line up with all his predecessors in affirming what should be the most basic proposition in a democracy.
We are a nation of laws, not of men.
No man, even the president — especially the president — is above the law.
And the duty each of his appointees assumes, to uphold the law and the Constitution, applies with the greatest force when it requires you to say no to power.
There’s a simple, two-word answer for what happened to Bill Barr.
Donald Trump happened.
A president who puts those who work for him between a rock and a hard place ethically speaking — who leaves them no choice but to resign or disobey him or both, who leaves decent people twisting in the wind or, like Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort, going to prison.
I don’t know precisely who pushed what buttons to push Barr over lines which he himself had always respected — at least that is how it looks. But I know how difficult it is to speak truth to power, not to mention the most powerful and volatile man in the world. And I know why for many top Republican lawyers, the words “the White House is on the line” or, worse yet, “the president,” strike terror in their hearts.
Bill Barr is not a bad guy. He served with honor in the past. If he couldn’t take it, who could?