It’s fitting that Attorney General William Barr submitted his resignation on the same day that the Electoral College certified President-elect Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election. President Donald Trump continues to say that the election was stolen, but Barr made it clear that the Justice Department found no evidence of massive fraud.
Barr’s resignation is also an opportunity for many Democrats to reassess their opinion of Trump’s second attorney general. They viewed Barr as a corrupt crony, with one calling him a stand-in for Trump’s disgraced former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen.
In this telling, Barr’s alleged villainy begins after former Special Counsel Robert Mueller submitted his final report on Russian interference in the 2016 election to the Justice Department. In March 2019, Barr issued a summary of its findings before releasing a lightly redacted version. Barr’s summary emphasized Mueller’s finding that he found no conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia, but did not include the report’s more damning details on Trump’s efforts to obstruct the investigation and his campaign’s many suspicious contacts with Russian nationals.
Barr then moved to appoint U.S. Attorney John Durham to investigate the origins of that investigation. He overruled career prosecutors to recommend a more lenient sentence for Trump associate Roger Stone, who was convicted of lying to Congress and later pardoned by Trump.
Barr wasn’t finished. He also instructed another U.S. attorney, Jeffrey Jensen, to review the prosecution of Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn. After that review was finished, Barr’s Justice Department tried to drop that prosecution. Flynn, too, was eventually pardoned by Trump.
For the #Resistance, Barr’s actions were proof that he was applying a double standard to get the president’s allies off the hook. So when Barr announced in November that U.S. attorneys were instructed to investigate credible allegations of election fraud, Democrats pounced again.
But this narrative has always left out some crucial but inconvenient facts. If Barr were really just acting as the president’s personal lawyer, then why would he have released Mueller’s damaging report at all? Why would Barr have recommended a lighter sentence for Stone, but argued against giving him a pardon?
And then there is Barr’s refusal during the campaign to publicly acknowledge the Justice Department’s investigation into the business dealings of Biden’s son, Hunter. And his non-intervention in the investigations or indictments of former Trump strategist Steve Bannon this year. And his hands-off approach to the prosecutions of Ukrainian associates of Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.
It’s fair to point out that Barr initially sought to release Durham’s report before the election. But when Durham needed more time, Barr accepted his judgment and opted to make him a special counsel in October, making it more difficult for Biden to fire him. It’s also fair to note that Barr took the unusual step of commenting on Durham’s investigation before it was finished. This was the same mistake that former FBI Director James Comey made when he announced before the 2016 election that the bureau had reopened its probe into Hillary Clinton’s private email server. Senior officials prejudice investigations when they discuss them publicly before they are complete.
At the same time, the investigations ordered by Barr have uncovered real abuses. If it were not for Jensen’s review of the Flynn prosecution, the public would not have known that the lead FBI agent on that case did not believe there was any evidence that Flynn was a Russian asset or agent as early as December 2016. A separate Justice Department inspector general report found the FBI’s warrant application to snoop on a former Trump campaign adviser was so riddled with errors and omissions that the secret court that approves such warrants forced the bureau to audit all of its surveillance warrants.
Barr deserves credit for bringing these abuses to light. And when Trump pressured him to use the Justice Department to legitimize his attempted electoral larceny, Barr politely resigned. He made the decision to protect the political and governmental institutions that have been so stressed in the last four years. This was a true public service — but he shouldn’t expect too much gratitude from Democrats for doing it.