Barr exit hints at further tumult under Trump
Attorney General William Barr’s impending exit from the Justice Department could portend a tumultuous final few weeks for President Trump as he seeks to settle scores and pardon allies.
Trump has publicly advocated for investigations into the Biden family, and he has reportedly mused about preemptively pardoning his own family members.
Some Republicans believe Barr’s exit was a sign that he hoped to distance himself from Trump’s unproven claims of voter fraud and legal maneuvering in his final weeks in office, where Trump is likely to try to exert pressure on the Justice Department one final time.
“Bill Barr drew a line in the sand. The president stepped over it with his ongoing effort to try to overturn the will of the voters and Bill Barr apparently had enough,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) told CNBC on Monday.
“I’m not surprised that he could no longer associate himself with the process that’s going on now,” Romney added.
Barr plans to leave the Justice Department next Wednesday, according to his resignation letter, which also indicated he had updated Trump on the agency’s review of voter fraud allegations.
Barr has been considered one of the president’s staunchest allies since he was confirmed in February 2019, defending Trump through his impeachment and standing by his side after authorities forcibly cleared peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square outside the White House.
His decision to get out with just a few weeks left in Trump’s term, some believe, is a reflection of both how tenuous their relationship had become and how erratic Trump’s behavior could be leading up to Jan. 20.
“Attorney General Barr has done Donald Trump’s bidding ever since he walked into the job of attorney general. Almost like an accomplice to a serious of unlawful events, Mr. Barr never got out of the getaway vehicle,” Washington, D.C., Attorney General Karl Racine said Monday night. “I believe that what’s happening now is Mr. Barr is getting out of the vehicle, because perhaps he does not want to be a part of the next series of wrongful events.”
News of Barr’s pending departure, however, came as the relationship was souring between the president and his top cop, while the inauguration of a new administration was quickly approaching.
The president was reportedly furious upon learning Barr was aware of an investigation into Hunter Biden’s taxes for months before it became public knowledge. Barr also publicly broke with Trump on election fraud, stating the Justice Department had not seen evidence of it on a scale that would change the result.
At one point, Trump declined to directly answer a question from a reporter when asked about whether he still has confidence in Barr, responding: “Ask me that in a number of weeks from now. They should be looking at all of this fraud.”
Trump is likely to push Barr’s successor to investigate both the Hunter Biden matter and the election. The Wall Street Journal reported Trump had urged Barr to appoint special counsels to investigate both issues, something Barr has resisted.
The president has, throughout his time in office, blurred the traditional boundaries between the White House and Justice Department. He urged former Attorney General Jeff Sessions to stop special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation; he repeatedly publicly weighed in on the Justice Department’s cases against Roger Stone and Michael Flynn; and he urged the Ukrainian president to get in touch with Barr about an investigation into the Bidens, which ultimately triggered the impeachment proceedings.
Trump has expressed frustration that an ongoing investigation by John Durham into the origins of the Russia probe had not yielded charges against Obama administration officials, and as recently as Tuesday he retweeted a post calling for top Georgia officials to be jailed.
Jeffrey Rosen, who currently serves as the No. 2 at the Department of Justice (DOJ), will move to the top spot after Barr leaves. He previously served as deputy secretary of Transportation from 2017 to 2019.
Some legal experts argue Rosen is altogether different from Trump’s past DOJ chiefs.
“Rosen, the new acting AG, is an establishment Republican, an [American Bar Association] leader, a very conservative champion of deregulation,” tweeted Jed Shugerman, a professor of law at Fordham University, who is a co-author on amicus briefs challenging Trump’s emoluments clause violations. “I warned against Sessions, Whitaker, & Barr from the beginning. Rosen is nothing like them.”
Peter Shane, a professor who teaches constitutional law at Ohio State University, also said his impression of Rosen is that he is a “well-respected administrative lawyer of a conservative bent” who is facing a tough month ahead.
While it is not possible to predict how Rosen will respond if the commander in chief comes calling on him to take steps like investigate his political foes, there is a ticking clock that leaves Rosen with a buffer of 36 days to weather any pressure he may face from Trump and his allies.
Barr largely received praise from Trump allies during his term for taking a series of actions that appeased the president, while legal experts, Democrats and other critics have long warned Barr was threatening the rule of law by bending the whims of the judicial system to appease a president who likes to walk over boundaries and longstanding practices.
Trump has already sought to begin pardoning his allies, with some reports suggesting he was offering them as a form of protection to officials after his time in office concludes. But the purported move raised concern among some who feared the optics, particularly because they didn’t believe they had done anything to violate the law.
After years of dangling a pardon for his former national security adviser Michael Flynn, Trump last month went through with it. Flynn had pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators about his contacts with a Russian diplomat before the start of the Trump administration.
Trump also commuted the sentence of his longtime ally, Roger Stone, a provocateur who was found guilty of seven felony counts last year, including witness tampering.
Flynn and Stone are viewed as just the start, with Trump reportedly musing about preemptively granting clemency to officials including his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and members of Trump’s family.
Some legal experts say Barr’s departure may do little to change Trump’s plans on pardons, should he decide to go that route.
“I don’t know that Barr’s presence or absence will make any difference to who Trump may be planning to pardon, or when,” said Jeffrey Crouch, an American University law professor who specializes in presidential pardons and federal executive clemency.
Crouch noted that Trump has bucked the traditional process to grant clemency or pardon individuals. In the past, presidents have typically relied on the pardon attorney’s office in the Justice Department for clemency advice.
“But Trump’s track record shows that he usually has not. The president has the constitutional power to grant clemency on his own. Despite the usual screening mechanism provided by the Pardon Attorney, he certainly could proceed to pardon people without DOJ involvement, if he wanted to,” Crouch told The Hill.
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