- David Colenational legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, professor of law and public policy at Georgetown University Law Center.
William Barr is resigning as attorney general, leaving his post after angering President Trump for not backing his baseless claims of widespread voter fraud more strongly. But despite their split, Barr has been one of Trump’s staunchest allies, echoing much of the president’s inflammatory rhetoric about Black Lives Matter and antifascist activists this year even while downplaying the threat posed by far-right extremists. In June, Barr reportedly personally ordered police to beat and tear-gas peaceful protesters gathered near the White House in order to clear a path for President Trump to walk to the nearby St. John’s Episcopal Church for an infamous photo op holding a Bible. David Cole, the national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, says despite their recent split, Barr was Trump’s “most loyal henchman” during his tenure. Barr was “entirely President Trump’s right-hand man, doing his bidding rather than providing an independent Justice Department,” Cole says.
AMY GOODMAN: Minutes after the Electoral College confirmed President Trump’s loss to President-elect Joe Biden, President Trump announced via tweet Monday that Attorney General William Barr was resigning. He wrote, in part, quote, “Our relationship has been a very good one, he has done an outstanding job! As per letter, Bill will be leaving just before Christmas to spend the holidays with his family…” Trump tweeted Deputy Attorney General Jeff Rosen will take Barr’s place.
Barr announced he was stepping down in a resignation letter released shortly after he briefed Trump about the Justice Department’s review into voter fraud claims in the 2020 election. He wrote in the letter allegations of fraud “continue to be pursued.” Earlier this month, Barr told the Associated Press, quote, “To date, we have not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election.”
News of Barr’s resignation comes after it was reported that he knew earlier this year about an investigation into the President-elect Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, and his tax affairs. This prompted Trump to lash out at Barr on Twitter over the weekend, calling him “A big disappointment!”
But Barr has been one of Donald Trump’s staunchest allies. This summer, The Washington Post reported Barr personally ordered police to beat and tear gas peaceful protesters who gathered near the White House in order to clear a path for President Donald Trump to walk to the nearby St. John’s Episcopal Church, where the president posed for photos holding a Bible. Barr denied using tear gas during an interview on CBS’s Face the Nation.
MARGARET BRENNAN: And the methods they used, you think, were appropriate? Is that what you’re saying?
ATTORNEY GENERAL WILLIAM BARR: When they met resistance, yes. They announced three times. They didn’t move. By the way, there was no tear gas used. The tear gas was used Sunday when they had to clear H Street to allow the fire department to come in to save St. John’s Church. That’s when tear gas was used.
MARGARET BRENNAN: There were chemical irritants, the park police have said.
ATTORNEY GENERAL WILLIAM BARR: No, there were not chemical irritants. Pepper spray is not a chemical irritant. It’s not chemical.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Pepper spray, you’re saying, is what was used.
ATTORNEY GENERAL WILLIAM BARR: Pepper balls. Pepper balls.
AMY GOODMAN: Attorney General William Barr also defended the administration’s actions by blaming the antifascist movement known as antifa for instigating violence during the protest instead of police.
ATTORNEY GENERAL WILLIAM BARR: We have evidence that antifa and other similar extremist groups, as well as actors of a variety of different political persuasions, have been involved in instigating and participating in the violent activity.
AMY GOODMAN: In fact, The Nation magazine has reported an internal FBI document shows the agency had, quote, “no intelligence indicating Antifa involvement/presence” at the protests, though it did cite the presence of, quote, “far-right provocateurs,” unquote.
It was just this past July when Attorney General Barr faced questions from the House Judiciary Committee in a confrontational hearing that included this contentious exchange with Washington Congressmember Pramila Jayapal, who noted the discrepancy between Barr’s deployment of militarized troops in response to Black Lives Matter protesters, and armed militia members who displayed white nationalist symbols as they stormed state capitol buildings in protest of public health measures in Michigan.
REP. PRAMILA JAYAPAL: On two separate occasions, after President Trump tweeted, “Liberate Michigan,” to subvert stay-home orders to protect the public health of people in Michigan, protesters swarmed the Michigan Capitol carrying guns, some with swastikas, Confederate flags, and one even with a dark-haired doll with a noose around its neck. Are you aware that these protesters called for the governor to be lynched, shot and beheaded?
ATTORNEY GENERAL WILLIAM BARR: No.
REP. PRAMILA JAYAPAL: There is a real discrepancy in how you react as the attorney general, the top cop in this country. When white men with swastikas storm a government building with guns, there is no need for the president to, quote, “activate” you, because they’re getting the president’s personal agenda done. But when Black people and people of color protest police brutality, systemic racism and the president’s very own lack of response to those critical issues, then you forcibly remove them with armed federal officers, pepper bombs, because they are considered terrorists by the president.
AMY GOODMAN: For more on the tenure of Attorney General William Barr, we’re joined by David Cole, the national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, professor of law and public policy at Georgetown University Law Center; his most recent book, Engines of Liberty: The Power of Citizen Activists to Make Constitutional Law. Last night, the American Civil Liberties Union tweeted, quote, “Bill Barr was one of the worst attorneys general in US history. He deployed the Justice Department not to promote justice — but to serve Donald Trump.”
David Cole, explain. And respond to his resignation, a few weeks before he would have had to leave anyway because, yes, Joe Biden won the election and will become the 46th president.
DAVID COLE: Right. Well, you know, it’s really, in some sense, déjà vu all over again. We saw Jeff Sessions, the first attorney general under President Trump, be kind of the right-hand man for Donald Trump on every issue except one, and that was his refusal to recuse — or, his decision to recuse himself from the investigation into Russian interference in the election. And that one sin caused Trump to basically push Sessions out.
Now, then Barr comes in and, again, is entirely President Trump’s right-hand man, doing his bidding rather than providing an independent Justice Department, which is what our constitutional norms and traditions require. But when he will not repeat President Trump’s lies about widespread voter fraud and when he did not illegally disclose the existence of an investigation into Hunter Biden before the election in an effort to undermine the election, Trump again sort of writes him off and throws him overboard. I mean, there’s no — you can’t be too loyal to President Trump. And Bill Barr was really, for all intents and purposes, his most loyal henchman. And yet even he got sacrificed at the end.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: David Cole, I wanted to ask you about probably the biggest story, other than the election, obviously, of this year — the coronavirus pandemic — and the statement by the attorney general echoing the anger of President Trump against the lockdowns, that these lockdowns, according to him, apart from slavery, were, quote, “the greatest intrusion on civil liberties in American history.” That’s the attorney general speaking earlier this year.
DAVID COLE: Yeah, remarkable, remarkable statement. I mean, this Justice Department, in four years, has conducted a single Voting Rights Act enforcement action. One single Voting Rights Act enforcement action. And yet, Barr announced a special sort of initiative to go out and sue cities and states that were simply trying to keep people safe, simply trying to save lives. I mean, like the president, he let politics get in the way of saving people’s lives. And by doing that, he’s essentially fomenting the views of the deniers, who refuse to wear masks, who refuse to engage in social distancing, and who are responsible for the 300,000 deaths that we’ve now seen in this country. It’s really intolerable.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: One of the other areas of much controversy with the attorney general was his order to prosecutors to dismiss charges against Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who has since been pardoned by the president — his efforts here to, in essence, interfere with his own Justice Department’s prosecutions.
DAVID COLE: Right. I mean, there’s a long-standing tradition in the Justice Department of independence. And it includes independence of the attorney general from the president, which Barr threw out the window. But it also includes independence of the line prosecutors from the attorney general himself. It’s a kind of federalist system. And we don’t want sort of the top political people deciding who gets prosecuted and who doesn’t, and so we let those decisions be made by the U.S. attorneys in the particular local districts, but not Bill Barr.
He interfered in the Michael Flynn prosecution, after Michael Flynn had pled guilty — had pled guilty — to order them to dismiss the prosecution. He also interfered in the Roger Stone case, where his prosecutors sought a much more serious sentence against Roger Stone, and he again intervened to push for leniency. So, in both instances, he violated the norms of the department. Why? To aid President Trump. Not to promote justice, not to promote independence, but to aid President Trump by doing favors for his cronies, who had violated the law.
AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to talk about the people who are on death row, asking about William Barr’s role in the Trump administration’s revival of the death penalty. Trump has executed nine federal prisoners during his tenure, ending a 30-year hiatus in federal executions. He intends to kill four more people before he leaves office on January 20th. The last will be January 12th. These are the first executions during a president’s lame-duck period in over 130 years, since Grover Cleveland executed three people of color, among them a Choctaw Native American.
The latest prisoner to be put to death, in the last two prisoners, was Brandon Bernard, a 40-year-old Black man, killed on International Human Rights Day, December 10th, even after five of the nine surviving jurors changed their minds and said Brandon should not be executed.
The federal government’s only death chamber, at the U.S. penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, is only equipped to kill by lethal injection. In order to expedite this killing spree, the Trump administration quietly issued a rule change authorizing federal executions to take place, as well, by firing squad, poison gas or electrocution. It was going to be starting on Christmas Eve, but then they pushed it to December 28th. But can you talk about, well, this killing spree?
DAVID COLE: Well, you know, the rest of the world is moving in the direction of recognizing that the death penalty is abhorrent, a violation of basic human rights. There’s been a moratorium on federal executions for a very long time.
And as they’re going out the door, the Trump administration is seeking to do as much damage as it can on all fronts. But in no area is it more cruel and unusual than with respect to these individuals. There’s no need to rush to judgment. The rush here is simply that they recognize that Joe Biden is opposed to these executions; they would not go through if Joe Biden were in office. And so they want to kill these individuals before they leave office. Again, it’s sort of beyond belief.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, David Cole, I wanted to ask you about one of Barr’s more recent actions. Earlier this month, he appointed Connecticut U.S. Attorney John Durham to act as a special counsel investigating the 2016 election. That essentially ensures that Durham will keep his investigation and double down on one of Trump’s obsessive claims, that the national security and criminal concerns about his campaign and Russia in 2016 sullied the legitimacy of his election and presidency. What about this extension, basically, of Durham’s mandate into the coming years, the early years of the Biden administration?
DAVID COLE: Well, to me, it’s a bookend of what Bill Barr did when the Mueller report came out. You know, the Mueller report comes out — well, doesn’t come out; it is delivered to the attorney general. The rest of us can’t see it. And Barr holds a press conference in which he blatantly mischaracterizes its findings to make it sound like it’s an absolution, when in fact it was an indictment in everything but name. The only reason it wasn’t an indictment was because they concluded that they didn’t have the power to indict, but the facts were devastating.
And Barr, rather than seek to tell the American people the truth, you know, told a tainted story — a cover-up, essentially — and sought to present the Mueller investigation as if it was saying nothing wrong happened. And, you know, now he’s continuing to abet, aid and abet, Trump’s effort to sort of call into question a very legitimate investigation into significant Russian intervention into our presidential election. So, very, very disturbing. I have no reason to doubt the bona fides of John Durham. You know, I suspect that nothing will come of this in the end. But it is disturbing that Barr, rather than tell the American people the truth, sought to shade that truth in ways that would help his boss and mislead the American people.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, David Cole, a question, overall, about pardons. I think Trump has done fewer than any other president, to say the least, except for his friends. But what it means when the attorney general steps down in these last few weeks, and, just overall, the legacy of the Trump and Barr Justice Department?
DAVID COLE: Well, you know, I mean, again, I think when Barr was first named, people thought maybe this guy is going to come in and restore the integrity of the Justice Department, which Jeff Sessions had pretty much eviscerated, because Barr was clearly at the end of his career. He didn’t need to go anywhere. This was sort of his last career move. People thought of him as a straight-up guy under George H.W. Bush.
But, no, he came in and essentially sought to aid and abet whatever President Trump sought, up to this last moment where he was unwilling — and you do have to give him credit for that. He was unwilling to repeat the lies. Many other Republicans have repeated the lies that Trump has spouted about the election ever since he lost on November 3rd, but Barr did not. So I think you do have to give him credit for that. You do have to give him credit for not disclosing — illegally disclosing — an investigation in the run-up to an election, unlike James Comey. But beyond those two actions, for which he essentially lost his job, he was the enabler-in-chief.
AMY GOODMAN: David Cole, national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, professor of law and public policy at Georgetown University Law Center; his most recent book, Engines of Liberty: The Power of Citizen Activists to Make Constitutional Law.
When we come back, the Electoral College formally votes to make Joe Biden president. We’ll look at the growing movement to challenge the Electoral College. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: “A Blaze of Orange” by Steve Skinner and John Franklin. And a shoutout to all of the listeners and community in KFFR community radio in Winter Park, Colorado.