Abandoning subtlety, Barr positions himself as a partisan operative

The office of the attorney general is supposed to be filled by someone who wants to be "the people's lawyer," not a partisan operative.
Image: William Barr
Attorney General William Barr appears before the House Oversight Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, on July 28, 2020. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post via AP, Pool)Matt McClain / Pool via AP

It was last fall when Attorney General Bill Barr delivered surprising remarks at Notre Dame, where the nation's chief law-enforcement official condemned societal ills on conspiring American secularists, whom he accused of launching "an unremitting assault on religion and traditional values."

A month later, in November 2019, Barr delivered equally unsettling remarks defending a dramatic vision of expansive presidential power and accusing "the left" of engaging in "the systematic shredding of norms." It prompted even some conservative-leaning lawyers to rebuke the attorney general's radicalism.

In 2020, Barr has gone even further, becoming increasingly brazen about the politicization of American law enforcement. Just a few months ago, his actions were so outrageous that 2,300 former Justice Department and FBI officials -- from both Republican and Democratic administrations -- publicly called for the attorney general's resignation.

Some may have hoped the pushback might temper Barr's political antics, if only to keep up appearances in an election year, but the attorney general actually seems even more eager of late to position himself as a partisan operative. The Washington Post reported this morning:

Nearly two weeks after Democrats grilled Attorney General William P. Barr over the Justice Department's crackdowns on racial justice protests, Barr on Sunday evening lashed out at the opposition party and the Black Lives Matter movement. Speaking to Fox News host Mark Levin, Barr said liberals are intent on "tearing down the system" and called protesters' tactics "fascistic."

It's easy to forget, but in the not-too-distant past, the office of the attorney general was supposed to be filled by someone who wanted to be "the people's lawyer," not a political operative working on behalf of the president.

And yet, there was Barr on Fox News last night, unironically chatting with a far-right host about his concerns regarding overt partisanship.

"I think what's happened is that the left-wing has really withdrawn and pulled away from the umbrella of classical liberal values that have undergirded our society since our founding," Barr argued, in apparent reference to Democrats. He added that he believes the left "really represents Rousseauian Revolutionary Party that believes in tearing down the system" in order to achieve "complete political victory."

In a striking example of projection, the attorney general went on to complain, also in apparent reference to Democrats, "They're not interested in compromise. They're not interested in dialectic exchange of views. They're interested in total victory. It's a secular religion. It's a substitute for a religion. They view their political opponents as evil that because we stand in the way of their progressive utopia that they're trying to reach."

He added, "The left wants power because that is essentially their state of grace in their secular religion. They want to run peoples' lives so they can design utopia for all of us and that's what turns them on. And it's the lust for power and they weren't expecting Trump's victory and it outrages them."

Just so we're all clear, these were Barr's comments, not Levin's. One might expect a partisan broadside like this from prominent far-right media personalities, but these quotes come from the man responsible for overseeing federal law enforcement in the United States.

Barr proceeded to condemn the nation's free press ("The American people are being told a lie by the media"), dismiss the scandal surrounding Russia attacking U.S. elections to boost the Republican ticket ("The whole Russiagate thing was an instance" of "using criminal justice system as a political tool"), and offer gushing praise for the president who chose him for the post.

Donald Trump, according to his A.G., is an "excellent executive" who makes decisions that are "well-vetted" by the White House and the "very high-caliber individuals" who serve in the cabinet.

As for the president's work habits, Barr added, "I've never seen such energy. He's always working."

In the coming weeks and months, the attorney general may very well try to give Trump some pre-election boosts -- John Durham's efforts continue to hang overhead -- at which point Barr will probably regret having thrown away his credibility and the stature that ostensibly comes with his office.