For much of the last two years, Bill Barr was regarded as Donald Trump’s most-valued wingman.
The attorney general enabled the President’s darkest instincts on the possibility of vote fraud in mail-in ballots. He compared lockdown orders as a result of the coronavirus pandemic to slavery. He tried to have the Justice Department take over the President’s defense in a defamation suit filed against Trump.
Given all of that, there might be a tendency to believe that Barr’s resignation as the nation’s top cop Monday night – a move that came after multiple reports that the President was considering firing him – marks the end of a era in which the Department of Justice was used (and misused) to further the political whims of the President.
Don’t be so sure.
While there’s no doubt that Barr, on a number of occasions, made himself a willing participant in Trump’s efforts to turn the Justice Department into his own private score-settling agency, there’s been several examples of late in which Barr bucked the President’s wishes in critical moments.
* According to The Wall Street Journal, Barr went out of his way this past fall to ensure that the federal investigation into Hunter Biden’s financial dealings never went public in the course of a presidential campaign in which Trump sought to make the son of his Democratic opponent a major issue.
* Earlier this month, Barr directly contradicted Trump’s repeated claims that there was widespread voter fraud in the presidential election. “To date, we have not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election,” Barr told the Associated Press in an interview.
Those twin moves suggest that, while he was willing to bend to Trump’s will, Barr’s ultimate loyalty – at least in these instances – was with the rule of law.
Which, of course, made Trump angry. And made him want to get rid of Barr. Which, effectively, he did on Monday night – as Barr’s resignation is rightly understood as one forced by the President’s repeated public attacks on him. (Don’t forget: Trump suggested, in an interview with Fox’s Maria Bartiromo that both the FBI and Department of Justice might be involved in the attempt to keep him from winning. He offered no proof of this massive claim.)
All of which begs this question: If Barr wasn’t loyal enough to Trump or willing to do everything the President asked of him, what will the post-Barr DOJ look like for the final weeks of the Trump presidency?
In announcing Barr’s resignation, the President also said that Deputy Attorney General Jeff Rosen would serve as the acting attorney general – although he did not specify whether Rosen would hold that job for the remainder of Trump’s term.
Trump has previously expressed his preference for “acting” officials in key roles. “I like acting because I can move so quickly,” he said in 2019. “it gives me more flexibility.”
It also gives him more control over the broader government apparatus as he can place unquestioning loyalists in posts without having to worry about those people being confirmed by the Senate.
What that means for the DOJ is that Trump is very likely to enjoy something close to unfettered control over the department between now and January 20.
That could mean the appointment of a special counsel to ensure the Hunter Biden investigation continues beyond the Trump presidency.
It could mean increased pressure on special counsel John Durham, who is investigating the origins of the Russia counter-intelligence probe in 2016, to announce his findings and/or bring charges.
Or 1,001 other things that Trump has unsuccessfully pushed the Justice Department to look into – virtually every one of them involving his political enemies – over his four years in office.
Most presidents before Trump understood that while the attorney general – and the wider Justice Department – work for him, that it was important for the rule of law to ensure that the AG had significant autonomy. Trump never seemed to understand that need for independence. And now, with Barr gone, the last major obstacle to him doing (or at least trying to do) whatever he wants is now gone.