Below is my column in the Hill on the early departure of Attorney General Bill Barr. The move will give Trump the record on Attorneys General. That is not good. A President cannot selected too many Supreme Court justices or too few Attorneys General. Reports indicate that, with Barr leaving, Trump is openly discussing appointing a special counsel for the Hunter Biden investigation. At this point, that appears entirely unnecessary and would further tarnish the image of Trump as someone who is interfering with the internal decisions of the Justice Department. What is clear is that Barr proved a critical fire wall for the Department at one of its most chaotic and challenging periods. As I have previously said, Barr remains more sinned against than sinner and history will vindicate his tenure at the Justice Department.
Here is the column:
Attorney General Bill Barr will be “leaving to spend the holidays with his family.” In Washington, “spending more time with your family” is the coded language for forced departures. It is our version of euphemisms like “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes” in the Godfather movie. Luca Brasi was not really sleeping with the fishes and Bill Barr Bill Barr might not have suddenly wanted to leave early to spend more time with his family. Indeed, since his kids live in the area, it was about as difficult for him to spend time with his family as . . . well . . . going home.
I testified at his Senate confirmation hearing. I have known him for decades and even represented him, along with other former attorneys general, in the Clinton impeachment litigation. In that hearing, Senator Richard Blumenthal asked me why President Trump wanted Barr, suggesting a stooge was being placed as head of the Justice Department. I responded, “I do not know what the president thought he was getting with Barr, but I know what he is getting. He is going to get someone who identifies incredibly closely with the department, and I think he will be a vigorous defender of it.”
It is clear now that Trump may have thought he was getting someone else but that Barr proved to be precisely the attorney general I hoped he would be. As I mentioned in the testimony, Barr and I have fundamental disagreements over presidential powers and I disagreed with him on a number of issues during his most recent stint at Attorney General. However, in confrontations with the White House, Barr proved to be the staunch defender of the integrity and independence of the Department. For weeks, Trump has slammed Barr for not finding systemic voter fraud, then for not disclosing the investigation of Hunter Biden before the election.
In an interview before the announcement of Barr’s departure, Fox News anchor Brian Kilmeade pressed Trump about his anger at Barr for not disclosing that investigation. Kilmeade noted, “Jonathan Turley said he had no choice … it would have been like James Comey again.” In response, Trump said he was “very disappointed” in Barr.
That was when I knew Barr was done. At the start of his administration, Trump said he was “very disappointed” that Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Russian investigation. As with Barr, Session’s decision was compelled by ethical rules, and he yielded to the overwhelming view of experts, including those within Justice. Yet Sessions was later dispatched to spend more time with his family.
In the interview, Trump insisted that special counsel Robert Mueller went public to correct the record after a false story about the Russia collusion investigation. BuzzFeed ran a false story about Trump ordering his personal attorney, Michael Cohen, to lie to Congress, for which Cohen was prosecuted; Mueller’s staff refuted the story after Democrats and various legal experts cited it to demand impeachment. But unlike the Hunter Biden investigation, the special counsel investigation was already public and its final report was being completed. Moreover, the story concerned the Cohen case, which was closed with his plea.
But Trump was not demanding that Barr act like Mueller. He was demanding that Barr act like James Comey, and that Barr repeat the very act that the president denounced as a basis to fire Comey. The Justice Department bars public disclosures of ongoing investigations. Not only can such disclosures undermine investigations, but they are unfair to subjects or targets who have not been charged. The Justice Department also follows a policy not to make disclosures or file indictments shortly before an election. So Barr had to choose between doing the right thing and the convenient thing. He chose exactly as I thought he would.
Notably, if Barr had acted unethically, it would not have achieved what Trump wanted. If Barr had publicly revealed an investigation involving Hunter Biden before the election, the Biden presidential campaign simply would have noted that Biden was not charged with any crime and would cooperate with investigators. Unless Barr had dished out untried allegations and raw evidence, it would not have changed the election’s political dynamic. Some of us wrote about how information, including a subpoena, indicated that Hunter Biden was under investigation. The media simply refused to report on that evidence and would have continued to protect Joe Biden before the election. After all, the mere fact of an investigation does not establish the basis of a crime, let alone guilt.
With Barr now dispatched for “family time” and replaced by Acting Attorney General Jeff Rosen, Trump will set a record of six attorneys general, acting or confirmed, in four years. That is literally too many by half. It is the same number that George Bush had during eight years in office.
The departure will end one of the most adverse terms of any attorney general in history. Trump’s attacks on Barr pale in comparison to the false attacks in the media. Trump’s attacks are, at least, based on fact: Barr did choose ethics over politics. The media, in sad contrast, has repeatedly and falsely accused Barr of wrongdoing and then refused to correct those stories.
The media widely reported that Barr ordered Lafayette Park cleared of peaceful protesters to enable a Trump photo op at nearby Saint Johns Church. The evidence directly contradicts those claims. I testified before Congress on the incident and cited overwhelming evidence that the decision to clear the park area was made the prior weekend, after violence erupted around the White House. Barr was not aware of the photo op when he approved the clearing of the area, which was delayed due to the late arrival of personnel and fencing material. Yet the false story was widely repeated.
Barr never seems to care much about such media and political attacks. Those of us who know him are far more bothered by the criticism than he is. I had lunch with him two days before the announcement of his resignation, and he remained resolute and content despite barbs from all sides. Barr has always proven the ultimate immovable object in the path of irresistible forces. Whether it is the press or the president, he is formidable precisely because he knows who he is. He has a sense of his own “True North” and does not break from that line of sight. Barr will have his family time. That is good for his family, but not so good for the country.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can find his updates online @JonathanTurley.