If you listened to some leading members of the U.S. legal establishment after President Donald Trump appointed William Barr attorney general, you might have expected him to serve as an institutionalist who would maintain the Justice Department’s hallowed independence. You would have been better off paying attention to Fox News’ pro-Trump propagandists. They had Barr pegged from the first as a yes man who would systematically dismantle the rule of law in order to benefit the president.
A year into Barr’s tenure, there is no question that Barr and Trump are corrupting the legal system. In the latest example, the DOJ’s leadership on Tuesday intervened to reduce the tough sentencing recommendation prosecutors had sought for Roger Stone, a longtime Trump adviser. This blatant political interference led to all four prosecutors withdrawing from the case in apparent protest. It triggered alarms from former Justice Department officials and current prosecutors. But the move drew praise from the president, who had publicly railed against the initial recommendation and now credits Barr with its revocation. And hours later, NBC News reported that the sequence was part of a broader pattern in which Barr consolidated control of “legal matters of personal interest” to Trump.
None of this is subtle.
Fox’s Trumpists, meanwhile, have responded with glee to the prospect that the Justice Department has become a tool of presidential retribution. They are ginning up attacks on the prosecutors who conducted the case and urging Trump to pardon his former consigliere. And they are openly rejecting the notion that Barr should be ensuring the independence of his department.
Fox’s propagandists had a better handle on how Barr would act as attorney general because they understood -- and agreed with -- Trump’s authoritarian view of the Justice Department. They view the Trump-era DOJ as a shield for the president and his allies -- and a weapon against his foes. When Barr’s predecessor, Jeff Sessions, failed to live up to this vision, Trump’s Fox cabinet successfully pushed the president to fire him. The network’s commentators subsequently backed Barr because they had reason to believe he would be more compliant -- and they have been proved correct.
When Barr took office in February, Trump was imperiled by the investigation of special counsel Robert Mueller. Mueller’s probe of Russian interference had resulted in indictments, plea deals, or convictions for his political fixer, Stone; his longtime personal lawyer Michael Cohen; his first White House national security adviser, Michael Flynn; and his 2016 campaign chair, Paul Manafort, among others. Trump himself had staggering legal exposure because of the evidence Mueller’s team had amassed of the president’s efforts to obstruct Mueller’s inquiry.
But Barr’s brand is cover-up, and he quickly moved to protect a president who had put him in place for that precise reason. CNN broke the news just days after his confirmation that he was preparing to announce the Mueller probe’s conclusion. Over the following weeks, Barr personally cleared Trump of obstruction, then dishonestly spun Mueller’s findings in an effort to deaden the impact of the special counsel’s final report.
What followed was a bureaucratic shuffle that led to the Justice Department’s leniency for members of Trump’s circle. The special counsel’s investigation had special protections designed to shield it from political influence, and its dissolution made it easy for Barr to seize personal control of the cases Mueller’s team had initiated. Jessie Liu, the U.S. attorney who had been overseeing the cases against Stone and Flynn, was replaced by Barr’s handpicked choice last month (and resigned today). The same day Liu lost her DOJ post, senior DOJ officials reportedly intervened to reduce the sentencing recommendation in Flynn’s case. The reduction for Stone would follow in turn.
Barr also shielded Trump on Ukraine: Even though Trump had asked Ukraine’s president to work with Barr on his scheme to investigate Trump’s political opponent, Barr did not recuse himself from the matter. And his department both intervened to prevent a whistleblower report on the scandal from reaching Congress and cleared the president of related campaign finance violations. After the president’s actions triggered his impeachment and acquittal by the Senate, he created a back channel Trump personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani could use to send his Ukraine disinformation directly to the DOJ.
Barr has also launched a legal counterattack aimed at the current and former federal officials Trump blames for generating the Mueller probe. In October, the DOJ opened a criminal investigation into the origins of the Russia investigation, and Barr has been closely overseeing the probe. Its reported contours appear to overlap with a sprawling conspiracy theory concocted by Fox News host Sean Hannity and his circle which posits that the Russia investigation was ginned up by anti-Trump “deep state actors” to prevent his election in 2016. None of this makes any sense, but Barr appears to have bought into it. He has been personally traveling the globe to push foreign intelligence officials to aid the inquiry, and he received unprecedented authority from Trump to unilaterally declassify its fruits. Meanwhile, his handpicked replacement for Liu is overseeing politically charged investigations into former FBI Director James Comey and his former deputy Andrew McCabe, both frequent targets of Trump and his Fox allies.
Fox’s pro-Trump commentators have cheered Barr’s every effort. They view him as the “new sheriff in town” and “the perfect man at this great inflection point.” They feel that way because he is protecting the president while turning their conspiracy theories about his foes into federal criminal investigations.
The attorney general’s decisions are barely distinguishable from the whims of a Fox host. And that means things can still get much worse. Trump’s Fox talking heads want pardons for Flynn, Stone, and other criminal members of Trump’s cabal. They are eager for a “cleansing” of federal law enforcement agencies, with anti-Trump figures “taken out in handcuffs” for their role in trying to investigate the president and his circle. They want criminal investigations into the purported crimes of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and they will surely add the next Democratic presidential nominee to that list as soon as that person is determined.
And they are all sure that William Barr is just the man to make their dreams come true. They have been right about Barr all along -- there’s little reason to doubt their hopes will be vindicated.