When Bill Barr was invited to speak at the conservative Hillsdale College of Michigan in September, he took the opportunity to respond to criticism that he had politicized the justice department he ran to benefit his political teacher, Donald Trump.
The then United States attorney general, who resigned last month, began His speech arguing that there had to be political contributions at the top of the Department of Justice (DoJ) so that he could be publicly accountable. He then turned to his own staff and, in response to recent complaints that he had improperly overturned the career prosecutors’ decisions, gave them a good fight.
“Name a successful organization where the decisions of lower-level employees are deemed sacrosanct,” he said. “Letting the younger members set the agenda may be a good philosophy for a Montessori preschool, but it is not a way to run a federal agency.”
Comparing hard-working and highly skilled civil servants to kindergarten children could pass as motivational leadership in Bill Barr’s school of management. But for many Justice Department attorneys, it summed up life in the Trump era.
For four years, they have watched the president smash the historic rule of agency independence from White House interference. Trump has referred to the Justice Department as “Trump’s justice department” and has carried out repeated vicious attacks on senior officials, including the attorney general whom he himself appointed.
Barr, who was Trump’s longest-serving attorney general, behaved similarly, leaving the impression on many observers that the department under his leadership was in the president’s pocket. He sought a more lenient sentence for Trump’s friend Roger Stone and decided to drop the criminal case against former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
“The department’s morale and reputation have been destroyed due to undue political influence on career staff decisions,” Vanita Gupta, former chief of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, told The Guardian. “Barr literally compared professional prosecutors to young children.”
Barr’s mocking comment is symbolic of the challenge now facing President-elect Joe Biden as he seeks to restore trust in this battered and bruised pillar of American democracy.
“The department must be rebuilt by new leadership committed at all times to decisions made about the law and facts, and not about what the president wants,” said Gupta, who now chairs the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. .
The first priority for Biden as he seeks to put the Justice Department back on the rails will be to show the American people, both in word and deed, that he intends to respect the agency’s independence with respect to specific criminal cases. Where Trump set that he had the “absolute right to do whatever I wanted with the justice department,” Biden has vowed to take a different path.
in a joint CNN interview With Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, Biden guaranteed he would avoid telling the Justice Department how to do its job. “Any decision must be based on the law, it must not be influenced by politics,” was how Harris put it.
Biden may find his best intentions hard tested early in his presidency. The Trump administration has been busy planting legal landmines in its path.
Last month, the Trump-appointed US attorney in Delaware opened an investigation into the tax affairs of the president-elect’s son, Hunter Biden. What happens to that investigation once the new administration takes office can define how much independence the 46th president is willing to grant his attorney general.
In any event, mere compliance with the Justice Department’s traditional rule of fiscal independence may be insufficient to repair the damage of the Trump era. Gupta said: “We came dangerously close to our democratic norms being undermined, so it will not be enough to go back to the old ways; it will be up to the new administration to learn the lessons and act accordingly.”
Bob Bauer, who served as a White House attorney from 2010 to 2011, also believes that special measures are now needed to shore up the agency’s independence. “You can’t expect everything to go back to normal just because Donald Trump has left the scene,” he said.
Bauer took a license as a law professor at New York University to advise Biden during his presidential campaign. Speaking to The Guardian in a personal capacity, he said he feared the rules that almost survived Trump’s attack could be broken if a more efficient demagogue entered the White House in the future.
“Someone could come and execute the threat to use the department to go after political enemies more effectively than Trump. Rather than waiting for a more astute, skilled, and competent Trump to appear, it makes sense to approach this as an institutional crisis that needs to be addressed. “
In their new book, After Trump: Reconstructing the Presidency, Bauer and his co-author Jack Goldsmith laid out reforms they would like to see implemented to protect the Justice Department from any future authoritarian presidents. They include the introduction of a new executive rule that would openly instruct the 115,000 justice department employees to “respond in all their actions not to partisan politics but to the principles of fairness and justice.”
The authors also propose that Congress put in writing that any prospective attorney general must comply with the Senate confirmation process that he is a “person of integrity.” Changes would be made to the special attorneys system to clarify under what circumstances presidents can be investigated and to protect investigators from the White House’s efforts to remove them.
Any move by the Biden administration to introduce new rules on the independence of the Justice Department is likely to face opposition. Michael Mukasey, a former federal judge who served as the United States attorney general during the George W Bush administration, told The Guardian that, in his opinion, such measures would be unnecessary and unfounded.
Mukasey said criticisms that the Justice Department had been politicized in its decision-making within the Trump administration were inaccurate. “There have been many actions by the Department of Justice that were directly contrary to the wishes of the president.”
He pointed to the decision of Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, to recuse himself from the investigation into Russian collusion, an action that greatly displeased the president. He also quoted Barr sorry to ABC News in February that Trump’s tweets made it “impossible for me to do my job.” “That was not consistent with the opinion of the White House,” Mukasey said.
In Mukasey’s analysis, attempts by the incoming administration to try to change the department, either through internal procedures or through legislation, would be unfounded. “I think in this country we are sometimes fascinated by mechanical solutions to problems; if we play with this or that, we can fix things.”
Instead, the focus should be on finding the right caliber of staff to fill the top positions. “The main lesson of the last four years is that we need good, solid people in all positions, from the White House down. If you have them, you’re fine, if you don’t then you can have all the bells and mechanical whistles you want, ”but they won’t make a difference.
The Biden administration will also be under pressure to restore the central role the Justice Department played in fighting police brutality and discrimination in the wake of the George Floyd protests. With Trump, the department’s commitment to police reform has faded.
On his last day in office as attorney general, Sessions issued a memorandum eliminating consent decrees – court-backed agreements that allowed the Justice Department to push through essential reforms within law enforcement that were involved in racial profiling, excessive or unjustified use of force. murder of unarmed black men.
Under Barack Obama, 14 consent decrees were imposed on rogue law enforcement agencies; under Trump, there have been none.
Gupta said the Biden administration needed to withdraw Sessions’ memo on day one. “Destroying civil rights enforcement across the board has been a setback for communities across the country, and restoring it has to be a priority,” he said.
Similarly, Gupta urged Biden’s incoming team to act quickly to rebuild the civil rights division as a key defender of the right to vote. In the Trump era, that feature of the justice department’s job also faded, and Barr accommodated the president’s unfounded claims of massive voter fraud in the elections to the allowing federal prosecutors to investigate the matter, prompting another high-profile resignation. Barr waited until long after the November 3 election. to announce publicly that there was no evidence of widespread electoral irregularities.
“It’s about time we stopped politicizing voting rights in this country and treated it as it is: a core value,” Gupta said.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism