Step aside, Mel Gibson — there’s a new Hamlet on the scene.
William Barr this week offered up his best “to be or not to be” routine as he publicly agonized about whether to remain in his post as Attorney General. Will Barr suffer the slings and arrows of an outrageous president, or will he take a meaningful stand on behalf of the Department of Justice?
Last week was the easy part. Barr went on ABC News and, for the first time in his yearlong tenure as Attorney General, appeared to dig his heel into the dirt and draw a line in front of President Donald Trump. “I think it’s time to stop the tweeting about Department of Justice criminal cases,” Barr declared, noting that “I cannot do my job here at the department with a constant background commentary that undercuts me.” Barr was clear: Trump’s “public statements and tweets made about the department, about our people … about cases pending in the department, and about judges before whom we have cases, make it impossible for me to do my job.” Yes: Barr said “impossible.” Lawyers usually leave themselves wiggle room, but there are no two ways about “impossible.”
Barr surprised many — including me — when he said the right thing (or at least mouthed the right words). And then Trump promptly surprised precisely nobody — including me — when he immediately told Barr to take his cute little declaration of prosecutorial independence and jam it.
Trump first tweet-smacked Barr across the mouth for stepping out of line: “‘The President has never asked me to do anything in a criminal case.’ A.G. Barr. This doesn’t mean that I do not have, as President, the legal right to do so, I do, but I have so far chosen not to!” Translation: Ok, Mr. Attorney General, just know that I can tell you to do whatever I want. I’m not doing that now. But I can.
Trump later reiterated that he, not Barr, runs the show: “I’m actually, I guess, the chief law enforcement officer of the country. But I’ve chosen not to be involved.” (Trump “guessed” wrong: yes, the president nominates the attorney general and can fire him, but he’s not the chief law enforcement officer any more than Bill Belichick is quarterback of the New England Patriots.)
And just to make his defiance of Barr’s ultimatum about not interfering on specific criminal cases entirely clear, Trump went ahead and interfered in a specific criminal case, firing off tweets attacking the judge and a juror — yes, a civilian juror! — on the pending Roger Stone case. And, just for good measure, Trump tweeted about the case again during Stone’s actual sentencing proceeding.
Barr reportedly was so offended by Trump’s meddling that he… considered resigning! (That’s a sarcastic ellipses, and exclamation point). Considering, considering, considering, and…. nothing.
Any parent recognizes this moment of truth. You’ve told your unruly five year-old not to touch the tv screen with his dirty hands, and then he looks you in the eye and smirks. You up the stakes: “I mean it.” And then he laughs and drags that little, applesauce-y hand right across the damn screen. Now what? If you back down, it’s over. The kid will never respect any of your commands, and shall rule the house with juvenile impunity.
That’s exactly where Barr now stands in relation to Trump. Indeed, we soon will get a definitive answer to the big question about Barr’s remarks last week: Did he mean what he said, or was he merely play-acting? Does Barr genuinely stand for the notion of an independent Justice Department, free and apart from politics — or was he saying what he had to say to quell mutiny within the Justice Department and a growing swell of condemnation from the public, including thousands of Justice Department alums, from both political parties?
So far, Barr’s inaction has told the tale. He has now had days to respond to Trump’s open defiance, and all you can hear coming from Main Justice headquarters are crickets.
So what can Barr do? What would a principled, strong leader do to push back and stand up for the Justice Department? Two things. First, any self-respecting public official who declares that “X makes it impossible to do my job” would resign if and when “X” continued to happen. But I’m not counting on Barr to walk his bold talk.
Second, Barr can take a stand from within the Justice Department. State out loud, again, that Trump has zero business saying anything about any criminal case, and that Justice Department prosecutors, judges, and the general public should disregard his lunatic rantings. Also: stop doing Trump’s bidding. Stop bending over backwards to protect Trump’s political allies like Michael Flynn and Roger Stone. Stop authorizing investigations aimed at validating Trump’s conspiracy theories about the Russia investigation and Ukraine. Stop generating absurd legal opinions designed to protect Trump from the consequences of his actions. If Trump fires Barr then, fine. At least Barr will have taken a real stand.
My fellow Jersey guy Bruce Springsteen is a great lyricist but was never much known for his battle-rap skills. That said, he came up with one of the alltime diss-track lines at the end of his sprawling, operatic masterpiece Jungleland: “The poets down here don’t write nothing at all. They just stand back and let it all be.” Bill Barr is no poet, but he has now offered up some bold words. And ever since then, he has just let it all be. Unless he takes dramatic action, and soon, then Barr once again will have shown us that his brave declarations of independence are empty, and that he lacks the spine and the guts necessary to keep the Justice Department separate from, and above, politics.