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Bill Barr may be Trump's attorney general, but he's not yours

Jeff Sessions was merely a far-right attorney general, who resisted serving as an extension of the White House. Bill Barr is the AG Trump always wanted.
Attorney General nominee William Barr testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019.
Attorney General nominee William Barr testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019.

The editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, one of the more reliably Republican voices in major American print media, praised Attorney General William Barr's appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee in a fairly specific way. Democratic lawmakers, the WSJ argued, were "shouting and pounding the table against Bill Barr for acting like a real Attorney General."

There's little doubt the White House agrees.

For the first two years of his presidency, Donald Trump, unfamiliar with the basics of American institutions, genuinely seemed to believe that the nation's attorney general, for all intents and purposes, is supposed to be the president's lawyer. Trump tapped a partisan loyalist, Alabama's Jeff Sessions, in part because he assumed the Republican senator would serve as an extension of the Trump political agenda, running interference for the president from his perch in the Justice Department.

When Sessions was merely a far-right AG, Trump was more than frustrated; he was also confused. Why, the president asked repeatedly, wasn't his attorney general shielding him from scrutiny? Why wasn't he targeting the White House's enemies? Why did he seem so reluctant to prioritize Trump's wishes over the rule of law?

As the Washington Post's Greg Sargent noted a couple of weeks ago, it culminated in a memorable declaration last fall: the president said, "I don't have an attorney general." Jeff Sessions may have occupied the office, but to borrow the WSJ editorial board's phrasing, he wasn't a "real" AG.

Yesterday, Bill Barr made it painfully clear that Trump finally has the attorney general he always wanted but never had. Indeed, as New York's Jon Chait wrote, Barr drove the point home with one highly memorable and utterly ridiculous argument.

The most illuminating moment in William Barr's Senate testimony came when he elucidated the bizarre theory of presidential immunity that got him the job in the first place. If an investigation is "based on false allegations, the president does not have to sit there constitutionally and allow it to run its course," Barr explained. "That is important, because most of the obstruction claims that are being made here, or episodes here, do involve the exercise of the president's constitutional authority. And we do know now that he was being falsely accused." [...]Barr's argument is that the president can decide an investigation is unfair and shut it down, thereby preventing it from proving underlying crimes, and then use the lack of proof of underlying crimes to justify his behavior. By the standard Barr is articulating, Trump can probably get away with all the crimes he wants as long as his obstruction of justice succeeds.

Is it any wonder the president called Fox Business last night to say the attorney general did a "really great" and "fantastic" job?

Of course, Barr didn't just toe the president's line; he also said what the president's partisan allies wanted to hear. A Washington Post analysis added:

Throughout his testimony, Barr repeated many of the same arguments and comments that landed him in hot water in the first place, and he again leaned into the idea that the Russia investigation might have been improperly launched -- as Trump has argued. Asked by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) whether he shared "my concerns about the counterintelligence probe and how it was started," Barr responded, "Yes."Barr also said he shared Graham's concerns about the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) process and stood by his controversial past use of the word "spying" to describe how former Trump campaign aide Carter Page was monitored. "I don't think the word 'spying' has any pejorative connotation at all," Barr said. "I'm not going to back off the word 'spying.' "

The old expression is that the U.S. attorney general is supposed to serve as "the people's lawyer." Obviously, Barr has no use for such a designation.

Donald Trump and his party wouldn't have it any other way.