On Monday, Donald Trump announced the exit of William Barr from the justice department. Finally, the president had succeeded in imposing his will upon someone, anyone, after weeks of repeated failures. On the very day that marked the 300,000th American death to Covid-19 and the electoral college’s ratification of Joe Biden’s victory, Trump had again hounded his attorney general from office. Jeff Sessions is no longer a club of one.
Yet Barr also won’t be there if and when the president delivers his final round of pardons, a likely relief to the president’s legal spear carrier but also a reason for Trump to fret: Barr knows a thing or two about eleventh-hour pardons. Mike Flynn is only the latest.
As attorney general to George HW Bush, Barr successfully urged the late president to grant a passel of pardons in the aftermath of the Iran-Contra scandal and Bush’s 1992 loss to Bill Clinton. Indeed, in Barr’s telling he was a driving force nearly three decades ago, running roughshod over justice department “naysayers”.
Specifically, Barr fought for the pardon of Caspar Weinberger, Ronald Reagan’s defense secretary who was under indictment, and five others, including Elliot Abrams. In time, Abrams would join the administration of George W Bush and eventually serve as Trump’s special representative for Iran and then Venezuela.
In a 2001 interview, the law-and-order Barr framed things this way: “The big ones obviously were the Iran Contra ones. I certainly did not oppose any of them. I favored the broadest.”
As for limiting Bush’s pardons to just Weinberger who was facing perjury charges, Barr was having none of that. He explained, “There were some people arguing just for Weinberger, and I said, ‘No, in for a penny, in for a pound.’”
At the time, Abrams had already pleaded guilty to withholding information from Congress, but Barr was not deterred. Rather, Barr “felt” that Abrams “had been very unjustly treated”. As expected, Lawrence Walsh, the then-independent counsel, saw things differently, saying: “The Iran-Contra coverup … has now been completed.”
Years later, Barr would distort the findings of the Mueller report, earning the ire of Mueller, his one-time friend and of Reggie Walton, a George W Bush appointee to the federal bench. In a 23-page opinion, Walton “seriously” questioned whether Barr “made a calculated attempt to influence public discourse about the Mueller Report in favor of President Trump despite certain findings in the redacted version of the Mueller Report to the contrary”.
To be sure, that was not the last time that Barr would draw fire from the courts. In the aftermath of the justice department’s tortured efforts to drop the government’s case against Flynn and Trump’s pardon, another federal judge, Emmet Sullivan, hammered Barr’s leadership. Like Walton, Sullivan too was distressed by the government’s capacity for contortion to placate Trump.
Even as he dismissed the charges against Flynn, Sullivan opined: “In view of the government’s previous argument in this case that Mr Flynn’s false statements were ‘absolutely material’ because his false statements ‘went to the heart’ of the FBI’s investigation, the government’s about-face, without explanation, raises concerns about the regularity of its decision-making process.”
As Barr departs Main Justice, he has extracted price for his rushed retirement. Against the backdrop of Trump’s baseless claims of electoral fraud and theft, Barr jabbed his boss in the eye. His resignation letter declared that “it is incumbent on all levels of government, and all agencies acting within their purview, to do all we can to assure the integrity of elections and promote public confidence in their outcome”.
Without Barr at his side, Trump now faces a long list of supplicants. In addition to Trump mulling a self-pardon, he also confronts the issue of granting pardons to Javanka, two of his sons, Rudy Giuliani and Ken Paxton, Texas’ attorney general who is under an active FBI investigation. Here too, Barr’s words may come back to haunt the president.
At his 2019 confirmation hearing, Barr testified that the president possessed the power to pardon family members but could also face prosecution if the pardon was tied to a broader effort to obstruct justice. Barr explained that while the president possesses the “power to pardon a family member’’, if it was “connected to some act that violates an obstruction statute, it could be obstruction”.
Come 12:01 pm on 20 January 2021, Trump loses immunity and becomes fair game for prosecutors. Already, Cyrus Vance, Manhattan’s district attorney, is eagerly circling Trump and his business. As for the southern district of New York, they have already labeled Trump an unindicted co-conspirator.
What comes next remains.