Bill Barr is the anarchist

Attorney General Bill Barr on September 21.
Attorney General Bill Barr on September 21.
JOHN AMIS/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Attorney General Bill Barr on September 21.

Bill Barr is the anarchist

The case for impeaching the U.S. attorney general, who has undermined the rule of law in New York.
September 24, 2020

President Donald Trump may not be right about most matters of fact, but he is on to something when he complains that law and order have been destroyed in New York City. Unfortunately, he’s right for the wrong reasons. 

Trump contends that a handful of broken store windows and an uptick in violent crime, which he claims are deliberately tolerated by Mayor Bill de Blasio, have rendered New York City an “anarchist jurisdiction.” This is false, as de Blasio and the rest of the city’s elected leadership have opposed violence and property damage by protesters. The mayor even instituted a curfew to quell the unrest in June and in the months since, the streets have been quiet. 

Rather, the rule of law in New York has been severely undermined by a different level of government: the Trump administration, especially U.S. Attorney General William Barr. In an unprecedented break with ethical norms that have governed the Department of Justice, Barr has inserted himself into, and actively opposed, the work of prosecutors whenever their target has been a Trump associate. 

The nation’s highest-ranking legal officer has become nothing more than a henchman for a lawless president. With Trump’s recent refusal to promise to respect the results of the election, having Barr in charge at the DOJ threatens the stability of the republic. For this situation, the founders wrote a remedy into the Constitution: impeachment.

In June, Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee introduced a bill to open an impeachment investigation of Barr, even before the attorney general’s most recent offenses. Three New Yorkers, Reps. Adriano Espaillat, Gregory Meeks and Nydia Velázquez, co-sponsored the measure, but support for opening the investigation doesn’t necessarily imply support for any specific outcome. Judiciary Committee Chair and Manhattanite Rep. Jerry Nadler said Barr “certainly deserves” to be impeached and removed from office, but won’t be because Senate Republicans won’t vote to convict him. 

The nation’s highest-ranking legal officer has become nothing more than a henchman.

The House Democratic leadership has displayed little enthusiasm for impeachment. They may suspect, for good reason, that swing voters don’t care about such abstractions as the politicization of the Justice Department. Impeaching Barr could also inspire Trump voters to turn out in greater numbers in November. 

But now impeaching Barr is gaining some currency among Democrats as a diversion to delay Senate confirmation of a Supreme Court nominee to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg – although it seems unlikely that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell could be so easily out-maneuvered. 

Is it politically wise for Democrats to impeach Barr? That’s a complicated question. But whether impeachment is warranted on the merits is a simple one. Trump was rightly impeached for abuse of power and obstruction of justice, and Barr has abused power and obstructed justice for Trump.

Trump and Barr have a lot in common: Both grew up in New York City, emulating powerful, domineering fathers. Like Trump and former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Barr is an uncommon political animal: a right-wing despot from a famously liberal city. Barr’s father Donald was the headmaster of the elite Dalton School on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. An autocrat who was accused of retaliating against students involved in anti-Vietnam War protests, Barr’s father was an uneasy fit at 1970s Dalton. It was then an artsy school with mostly liberal parents, and those parents eventually organized together to oust him. 

Like Trump, Barr seems determined to use his power to punish his native state and bend it to his will. 

But while New York conservatives may be marginalized at home, their angry, authoritarian brand has come to dominate the national GOP. And, like Trump, Barr seems determined to use his power not to serve the American people but to punish his native state and bend it to his will. 

Just consider some of Barr’s actions in New York.

Undermining the prosecution of Michael Cohen and other Trump allies

As The New York Times reported in July, “Shortly after he became attorney general last year, William P. Barr set out to challenge a signature criminal case that touched President Trump’s inner circle directly, and even the president’s own actions: the prosecution of Michael D. Cohen, Mr. Trump’s longtime fixer.” In what federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York believed was an illegal in-kind donation to the Trump campaign, Cohen had paid porn star Stormy Daniels not to publicly allege that she had an affair with Trump. Barr tried to interfere with the prosecution, the Times reported, by repeatedly questioning the legal justification for the case and suggesting that campaign finance law enforcement should be left to the Federal Election Commission. “Mr. Barr’s maneuvering in the Cohen case was not his only attempt to insert himself in Southern District cases,” the Times also noted. “After Mr. Barr was sworn in, one of his first actions was to seek briefings on politically sensitive investigations in the office,” including the investigation into Giuliani associates Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman. 

Intervening to keep Trump’s tax returns secret

The president’s business entanglements create myriad potential conflicts of interest, the vast majority of which remain unknown because he has broken with decades of tradition and refused to release his tax returns. Meanwhile, the Manhattan district attorney is seeking those returns as part of an investigation into the Trump family’s decadeslong efforts to minimize their tax liability for gifts and assets through legally questionable tactics such as creating a shell company through which Trump and his siblings overcharged his father for nonexistent services. In October 2019, the DOJ filed a motion in support of Trump’s personal legal team asking a court in New York to block Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance’s subpoena for eight years worth of Trump’s tax records. As Vice News observed at the time, “Trump’s lawyers made the unprecedented argument that as president, he should be totally immune from criminal investigation – a theory that has not been tested in the courts, and which former prosecutors called an outlandish expansion of executive immunity.”

Ousting U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman

In June, after the Trump administration had enough of the Southern District of New York’s investigation of alleged corruption by Trump’s cronies, Barr pressured Berman to resign, offering the prosecutor other jobs as an inducement and threatening that he would be fired if he didn’t comply. Berman refused, saying that his departure might derail sensitive ongoing investigations. The DOJ then announced – without Berman’s knowledge or permission – that Berman had resigned. Barr sought to replace Berman with Securities and Exchange Commission Chair Jay Clayton, a loyal Trump ally without any prosecutorial experience. After Berman reasserted that he hadn’t resigned, Trump fired him. “Firing Berman, who was investigating Trump’s allies and potential corruption of the president’s associates, is a perversion of the Justice Department’s independence for political purposes, and it is also potential obstruction of justice by Barr on behalf of the president,” said Donald Sherman, deputy director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonpartisan government watchdog. Barr’s efforts to prevent Vance from obtaining Trump’s tax returns could also be obstruction of justice, according to Sherman. 

Intervening on Trump's behalf in author E. Jean Carroll's defamation case against the president

Carroll has publicly accused Trump of raping her, and when asked about the accusation, Trump called her a “liar,” and said she is “not my type.” Carroll is now suing Trump for defamation over those statements. If that case went to trial, it could prove very personally embarrassing for the president. None of this has anything to do with the Justice Department’s responsibilities to the American people to uphold the law. Nonetheless, earlier this month, the DOJ requested that a federal court “substitute the United States for President Trump as defendant.” As The Washington Post explained, this is all for Trump’s benefit, and to the citizenry’s detriment. “The maneuver removes the case – at least for now – from state court in New York, where a judge last month had rejected Trump’s bid for a delay and put Carroll’s team back on course to seek a DNA sample and an under-oath interview from the president,” the Post wrote. “It also means that Justice Department lawyers will be essentially aiding Trump’s defense, and taxpayers could be on the hook for any potential damages, if the U.S. government is allowed to stand in for Trump. Winning damages against the government, though, would be more unlikely than in a suit against Trump, as the notion of ‘sovereign immunity’ gives the government and its employees broad protection from lawsuits.”

Declaring New York City an ‘anarchist jurisdiction’

In a functioning democratic republic, if the president wants to punish a city for its own policies on policing, that president asks Congress to pass legislation defining: which local policies will no longer be permissible; the process by which the federal government would determine whether jurisdictions are in violation of those new restrictions; and the specific funds that would be withheld as punishment. (The law would have to be forward-looking, rather than retroactive to past municipal actions like cutting the NYPD budget, because the U.S. Constitution forbids ex post facto laws.) Then, if the city violated those new regulations it would be subject to the legal process of stripping its funding. In a dictatorship, on the other hand, the law is whatever the dictator says it is – going forward and backward – with violations and punishments determined ad hoc by him or his minions. Trump prefers the dictatorial method, and now Barr is his enforcer. That’s why Trump has concocted the comically absurd category of “anarchist jurisdiction,” and Barr’s DOJ has placed New York City in that category on a totally arbitrary basis. Now, New York could lose billions of dollars in federal aid – not for anything it was given advance warning could trigger such a penalty, but for actions it has already taken: displeasing the president by passing modest policing reforms. Never mind that the finding that New York City is an anarchist jurisdiction is ridiculous; that Barr would even participate in the charade of “investigating” that accusation is an impeachable stain on the Justice Department. 

With his flunkies interfering in New York cases, the president’s favored allies have a free hand to violate federal laws here with impunity. 

Barr has, of course, committed similar offenses in other jurisdictions, including overruling a Washington, D.C., prosecutor to make a much lighter sentencing recommendation for New York’s own political dirty trickster Roger Stone, who was convicted for lying to Congress. He also gassed peaceful protesters in D.C,’s Lafayette Square so that Trump could have a photo op, about which he then lied.

This is not normal. Contrast it, for example, with the record of Berman’s predecessor, Preet Bharara. Bharara was appointed by then-President Barack Obama, a Democrat, and he aggressively went after corruption among New York Democrats and their donors without interference from Washington. Now, with a corrupt Republican in the White House and his flunkies interfering on Trump’s behalf in New York cases, the president’s favored allies have a free hand to violate federal laws here with impunity. 

A state without laws for some is a state without the rule of law. Impeachment is the mechanism by which the rule of law is reasserted. 

Ben Adler
is City & State’s senior editor.
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