U.S. Attorney General William Barr meets with members of the St. Louis Police Department in October.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr meets with members of the St. Louis Police Department in October. Jeff Roberson/AP

Analysis: Bill Barr’s Departure Reveals the Hollowness of Trumpism

Like Jeff Sessions before him, the attorney general discovered that all that matters to Trump is personal loyalty, not ideology.

In most ways, it would be hard to find two men much more different than Jeff Sessions and Bill Barr: One is a slow-drawling anti-immigration fanatic from Alabama; the other is a dry, intellectually engaged bagpiper from New York. One spent his career on the fringes of conservatism before a sudden late-career elevation to the Cabinet; the other is a consummate establishment figure who led the Justice Department twice, three decades apart.

But both men ended up serving as attorney general to President Donald Trump. They were perhaps the two most effective implementers of Trump’s agenda, driven by their own ideological sympathies with the president. And yet, both departed their jobs abruptly after clashing with him.

Trump announced via tweet tonight that Barr would be stepping down effective December 23. The details of Barr’s exit remain hazy. The president then tweeted a warm resignation letter from Barr, light-years from the terse missive that Defense Secretary James Mattis sent two Decembers ago when he resigned (only for Trump to insist he’d been fired). The president also praised Barr: “Our relationship has been a very good one, he has done an outstanding job!”

[Read: Trump fired Jeff Sessions, his most effective lieutenant]

This is far from what Trump has been saying about the attorney general recently, and the timing of the departure is strange, given that the administration will end (despite what Trump says) in barely more than a month.

Before Election Day, Barr warned about possibilities of voter fraud, making claims that experts described as outlandish, and after the election he authorized federal prosecutors to investigate fraud claims. But on December 1, Barr said that the Justice Department had not turned up any evidence of fraud “on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election,” placing him at odds with his boss. Trump fulminated publicly against his attorney general’s decision not to get involved in any of the postelection lawsuits that Trump and his allies pursued in an attempt to overturn the will of voters, calling Barr a “big disappointment.”

Trump was also furious that a much-hyped investigation into the origins of the FBI’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election, led by U.S. Attorney John Durham, did not produce any findings before the 2020 election. The president’s ire grew when The Wall Street Journal reported that Barr had overseen a probe into Hunter Biden, son of President-elect Joe Biden, but had taken pains to ensure that it was not made public prior to the election, to avoid the appearance of tampering. (Hunter Biden has not been charged with any crimes, but the probe is ongoing.) The problem was that tampering with the election was exactly what Trump had wanted Barr to be doing.

As the president raged publicly, The New York Times reported first that Barr might leave early, and then more recently that he would not. Given this backstory, the mutual warm words from Barr and Trump are hard to take at face value, but they also make it tough to know what actually happened. Did Trump push Barr out? Was Barr annoyed by Trump’s meddling? The enigma makes it even harder to know what to expect from the next few weeks. Was Barr’s departure a disagreement over things that had already happened, or is Trump hoping that new Acting Attorney General Jeff Rosen, the current deputy attorney general, will be easier to railroad into fresh mischief?

[David A. Graham: Barr misled the public—and it worked]

Nonetheless, Trump’s split with Barr echoes his falling-out with Sessions before his first attorney general’s departure two years ago. Neither man deserves much praise for doing the bare minimum of resisting some of Trump’s abuses, but their departures are interesting because no Cabinet secretaries have been as effective at carrying out Trump’s agenda as Sessions and Barr. In an executive branch filled with third-rate government apparatchiks and incompetent private-sector imports, Sessions and Barr were experienced in Washington and knew what to do. Beyond that, they were closely aligned with Trump ideologically, yet both left more or less unceremoniously.

Sessions was the first U.S. senator to endorse Trump, and he was a mentor to Stephen Miller, who has become one of the president’s closest advisers. Sessions had been a zealous advocate for restricting immigration long before Trump entered politics. They also agreed about matters like civil-rights-law enforcement (preferably lax) and restrictions on police conduct (ditto). This meant that Sessions didn’t blanch at separating migrant children from their parents at the border and locking them up, though he did try to blame the Department of Homeland Security.

Barr replaced Sessions (after a brief interim appointment) at a time when Trump and his friends were facing scrutiny from the law, including Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Barr’s de facto job application was an unsolicited memo to the Justice Department about presidential obstruction of justice. Barr had long espoused a broad view of presidential power, and he was more than happy to kneecap the Mueller probe, push the DOJ to let off Trump friends like Michael Flynn and Roger Stone, and intervene on the president’s behalf with government lawyers.

[David A. Graham: It’s all about the investigation for Trump]

The conflicts came when Trump wanted his attorneys general to do things that suited him but weren’t related to their own ideological projects, and in fact threatened to undermine those projects by dragging them into unrelated morasses. Sessions recused himself from overseeing the Russia probe and refused to un-recuse himself. Barr was happy to let Trump demand investigations into pretty much anything and anyone he wanted, but as of now he seems to have drawn the line at letting Trump determine the outcomes of those investigations, or letting him rush them.

Even though they had done so much to advance the president’s cause, they were ultimately loyal to their own politics and not, as he demanded, to him personally. It is tempting to say that Sessions and Barr were both Trumpists avant la lettre, but their eventual conflicts with him show there was no such thing: Trumpism is a cult of personality, and policy is always an afterthought.

This article was originally published in The Atlantic. Sign up for their newsletter

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.