Ever since would-be First Gentleman Bill Clinton stepped onto attorney general Loretta Lynch’s plane in June 2016, the Justice Department has found itself in the worst position possible for a non-political law enforcement agency – that of leading actor in the nation’s most hotly contested political dramas.
At times, the department’s own actions have fanned those flames – Lynch’s botched handling of the tarmac incident, FBI director Jim Comey’s press conference and subsequent letter on the Clinton email investigation, and attorney general Jeff Sessions’ inaccurate testimony before Congress have all raised legitimate questions about the impartial administration of law.
William Barr’s confirmation as Sessions’ successor was supposed to provide a reset to those turbulent times. A respected former attorney general who didn’t need the job, he promised that his extensive experience and end-of-career status would allow him to make decisions regardless of what a president notoriously hostile to the Justice Department’s normal practices wanted. “I feel I’m in a position in life where I can do the right thing and not really care about the consequences,” he told the Senate at his confirmation hearing. “I can truly be independent.”
Instead, Barr’s handling of the conclusion of the 22-month long investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into Russian interference in the 2016 election has thrust a new cloud over the Justice Department and his leadership, one that has grown darker with the reports that some members of the special counsel’s team believe he has mischaracterized their findings and needlessly inserted himself into the process to make his own determination as to whether the president obstructed justice.
Barr is now in open warfare with the special counsel’s office, with his spokesperson releasing a statement Thursday that seemed to push back on the contention, leaked to the New York Times and Washington Post, that he could have released a summary written by the special counsel’s office rather than his own version of events. That statement came after Barr’s peculiar assertion last week that his initial four-page letter was not a summary of the special counsel’s conclusions, even though it was his own initial letter that said he was “summariz[ing] the principal conclusions reached by the Special Counsel and the results of his investigation.”
Barr has also moved the goalposts on what categories of information would be redacted from the report, adding two new ones to the list he announced on March 24, while refusing so far to ask a court for permission to release grand jury material, as the Justice Department did at the conclusion of two previous investigations into presidential misconduct.
The attorney general’s actions raise suspicions about whether he is acting primarily to benefit the president because they don’t make sense when viewed through any other lens. Barr is neither inexperienced nor naïve, yet when deciding among the several options available to him when he received Mueller’s report, he chose the one course of action that would raise questions about his own integrity and plunge the Justice Department into political controversy.
Barr simply could have told Congress that he had received the report and would make a version available when he had completed his review and made appropriate redactions. He could have released Mueller’s principal findings, as he initially said he would do, without adding his own conclusion on obstruction of justice. Or he could have released one of the multiple summaries prepared by Mueller’s team while review of the full report continued. As a U.S. official briefed on the matter told the Post, “the front matter from each section could have been released immediately – or very quickly. It was done in a way that minimum redactions, if any, would have been necessary, and the work would have spoken for itself.”
Barr instead chose the one path that could call his behavior into question, while negating the entire reason for appointing a special counsel in the first place: to ensure that the taint of politics is removed from the Justice Department’s decisionmaking. That choice would be odd for any attorney general. It makes even less sense for one whose impartiality was questioned from the outset, given that he was chosen for the job after he wrote an unsolicited memo questioning some of the very foundations of the special counsel’s investigation.
Barr still has a chance to lift the cloud his actions have placed over his leadership, but to do so, he will have to reverse course quickly. He is right to redact classified information and information about what he called peripheral third parties from the version of the report that is set for the public release, but he should make sure that information is transmitted to Congress. He should petition the D.C. District Court to unseal grand jury information contained in the report, and he should follow the precedent the department set in both the Starr investigation and the 2016 Clinton email investigation and provide underlying investigative materials to lawmakers.
Finally, he should realize that the special counsel is not his antagonist, but his protector. Mueller is one of the most talented and respected prosecutors of his generation, and his integrity will accrue to Barr’s benefit, if only Barr will let it. The sniping the Justice Department has directed toward the special counsel’s office in the press over the past two weeks, both on the record and through leaks to reporters, is not just unseemly – it also hurts the entire department and its ability to do its job.
If the Justice Department has any hope of restoring the reputation that has been tarnished – sometimes fairly, sometimes not – through the last three years of political combat, it will be by leaning on Mueller’s hard-earned reputation and letting his work speak for itself. Barr should get out of the way and let that happen. Otherwise, he will deserve all the criticism he gets, and both he and the Justice Department will suffer for it.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine