October 08, 2020 Feature

Barr Battles the Rule of Law

Has the current U.S. attorney general jettisoned his position’s traditional role?

Steven J. Harper

Download a printable PDF of this article.

“With your law degrees, you will have immense power to do great harm,” Harvard Law Professor Duncan Kennedy admonished our one-L torts class in 1976.

A few months later, former president Richard M. Nixon (JD, Duke, ’37)—who thought Watergate a political “witch hunt”—uttered his infamous line in his May 1977 interview with David Frost: “Well, when the president does it, that means it is not illegal.” And his former attorney general, John N. Mitchell (JD, Fordham, ’38), was headed to prison.

Today, 44 years later, U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr (JD, George Washington, ’77) has driven home the gravity of Professor Kennedy’s admonition. When the story of the Trump era is written, history will pose a single defining question to every American lawyer: In the fight to preserve the rule of law, on which side were you?

America has seen which side William Barr is on. As the nation’s top law enforcement officer, the attorney general is responsible for representing the “People of the United States.” Early in his tenure, Barr jettisoned that role. He has never looked back.

Operating instead as President Donald J. Trump’s personal advocate, Barr has worked to undermine the Trump-Russia investigation—the subject over which Trump has obsessed from the beginning of his presidency. Although troublesome, Barr’s Trump-Russia actions are best viewed as a case study in his modus operandi. What Barr has done to that probe and its key players he can do to anything and anyone. His methods are ominous for the rule of law itself.

Hiring Barr was no accident. Early in 2017, before special counsel Robert Mueller’s appointment, Trump feared that he was losing control of the Trump-Russia investigation. He was furious at then attorney general Jeff Sessions (JD, Alabama, ’73) for recusing himself from the ongoing probe. Referring to his former personal attorney, notorious fixer, and top aide to Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy (R-WI) during the investigations of communist activity in the 1950s, Trump lamented, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?”

A year later, he got his answer. Barr sent Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein (JD, Harvard, ’89) an unsolicited 19-page memo challenging the premise of Mueller’s obstruction of justice investigation and urging that the special counsel should not be permitted to even question Trump. In William Barr, Trump had found his Roy Cohn.

Illustration by Matt Collins

Illustration by Matt Collins

Premium Content For:
  • Litigation Section
Join - Now