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Image: Attorney General William Barr at a press conference in Detroit on Dec. 18, 2020.
Attorney General William Barr at a press conference in Detroit on Dec. 18, 2020.Bill Pugliano / Getty Images file

AG Barr considers action against states over virus restrictions

Trump has told governors they can call their own shots on the pandemic. Barr, however, is prepared to sue governors whose shots he doesn't like.


Attorney General Bill Barr caused a bit of a stir two weeks ago when he appeared on Fox News and criticized state efforts to address the pandemic as "draconian." The Republican lawyer went on to express support for unproven medicinal treatments and called for the end of mitigation measures at the end of April. "I think we have to allow people to adapt more than we have," he said.

Yesterday, Barr made another appearance in conservative media, and this time, he raised the possibility of federal legal action against states that impose public-safety measures the attorney general disapproves of.

"There are very, very burdensome impingements on liberty," he told radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt, "and we adopted them for the limited purpose of slowing down the spread. We didn't adopt them as the comprehensive way of dealing with this disease. We are now seeing that these are bending the curve, and we have to come up with more targeted approaches."

In case this isn't obvious, it's worth emphasizing that Barr has literally no background in epidemiology, public health, or responses to pandemics.

"We have to give businesses more freedom to operate in a way that's reasonably safe," the AG added. "To the extent that governors don't and impinge on either civil rights or on the national commerce -- our common market that we have here -- then we'll have to address that.... As lawsuits develop, as specific cases emerge in the states, we'll take a look at them."

Barr went to describe stay-at-home orders as "disturbingly close to house arrest."

It remains unsettling to see the attorney general operate far outside his lane, but there's a larger principle Barr seems eager to ignore. It was, after all, just last week when Donald Trump held a videoconference with governors and said, "You're going to call your own shots."

When the president released White House guidelines on re-opening strategies, he emphasized that state officials would have discretion over timelines and implementation efforts.

What Trump and his team apparently failed to mention is the White House plan came with some fine print that no one outside the West Wing could see. Indeed, the day after Trump told governors they were free to call their own shots, the president started making "liberate" declarations, effectively endorsing civil disobedience in states with Democratic governors whose shots Trump didn't like.

Five days later, Trump's attorney general raised the prospect of legal action against states trying to save lives in ways Bill Barr finds objectionable.

The broader message is increasingly incoherent. The White House has told governors to find their own medical supplies. And develop their own testing regimens. And craft their own re-opening strategies. At the same time, however, the president and his team are also telling governors they should expect Trump-backed protests and DOJ-backed litigation if their public-safety safeguards meet with the White House's disapproval.