Though it was evident at the time that President Donald Trump and the Department of Justice (DOJ) were closely aligned, the full extent to which the agency took its direction from Trump and fulfilled his political wishes is only now becoming clearer.
Recent reports show the department under both Attorneys General Jeff Sessions and William P. Barr secretly sought and obtained phone and email records of journalists, lawmakers and even White House Counsel Donald McGahn in pursuit of leaks related to politically damaging news stories.
In 2017 and 2018, the DOJ obtained the phone and email data of at least 12 people connected to the House Intelligence Committee, including two top Democrats on the panel, as part of a leak inquiry into the FBI’s Russia investigation. Gag orders imposed on several major tech firms, including Apple and Microsoft, to prevent them from informing customers about the subpoenaed records were renewed throughout Barr’s stint as AG. Barr told Politico that he was “not aware” of any searches of members of Congress. Sessions also denied knowing about the subpoenaed records, though he announced DOJ had 27 leak investigations underway in November 2017.
DOJ inspector general Michael Horowitz said Friday that his office will investigate the department’s subpoenaed phone and email records during the Trump administration to see whether they were appropriate and abided by agency guidelines. On Monday, Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland ’74, J.D.’77, requesting a full briefing on the searches of lawmakers.
A new book, “Hatchet Man: How Bill Barr Broke the Prosecutor’s Code and Corrupted the Justice Department,” attempts to catalog actions Barr took that author Elie Honig, J.D. ’00, says greatly damaged the department’s reputation for impartiality and independence from politics. From Barr’s efforts to neuter the Mueller investigation and to burying the Ukraine whistleblower’s complaint to public validations of Trump’s claims about voter fraud in the 2020 election, Barr appeared to equate serving the White House’s political interests with the DOJ’s mission and constitutional duty to the country, Honig argues.
A CNN legal analyst, Honig served as a federal prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) from 2004 to 2012 and as assistant attorney general in the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice from 2012 to 2018. He spoke with the Gazette about Barr’s effect on the DOJ and why he thinks Attorney General Garland needs to be more aggressive if he’s to restore the department’s luster.
GAZETTE: The Trump administration was full of news-making incidents and powerful figures. What’s noteworthy about what Barr did as attorney general?
HONIG: There were so many scandals, so many abuses of power, that when you lay them end to end like this and thoroughly document and assess them, I think it’s stunning, and I think it’s alarming. Even since the book went to print a few weeks ago, we’ve learned of several new scandals that illustrate just how badly Barr abused his power as AG — including, most troubling, secretly investigating reporters and members of Congress, apparently without justification.
People sometimes say to me, “Well, how about Eric Holder?” I’m not necessarily pro or con Eric Holder. He was one of four attorneys general I worked under. All they have on Holder is he said, at one point, he was Obama’s “wing man” and “fast and furious.” So you have one inappropriate statement, and you have one scandal that has nothing to do with covering up for the president. Contrast that with Bill Barr and this overwhelming body of corruption that he put together in his less than two years as attorney general. Everyone sort of remembers the Mueller report and maybe [Roger] Stone, maybe [Mike] Flynn. [But] there was the private party he had at the Trump hotel, the intervening in the E. Jean Carroll case, which is back in the news. There was the way he talked about election fraud in the run-up to the election and spread the big lie. Even within those stories, so many nuances and details that have been lost or forgotten. I’ll give you one example: It’s well documented, including by multiple federal judges, that Barr lied to the public about the Mueller report. What I think people forget is the way that he choreographed and manipulated his own lie for maximum impact. Bill Barr got the Mueller report on a Friday, March 22. He came out with his bogus four-page letter “clearing” Donald Trump two days later, on March 24. Do you remember how long Bill Barr held on to the Mueller report and kept the public from seeing it? Twenty-seven days! In that month, public opinion calcified. Barr had already told his slanted version of the story. You can’t unring that bell. It was so manipulative for him to hold that report back for 27 days, during which time he testified in Congress, he gave a press conference. So that fact is something I think we all knew at one point, but when you bring it back, you see how outrageous it is.
GAZETTE: You say Barr was “corrupt from the beginning,” starting with the way he auditioned for the job by denigrating special counsel Robert Muller’s investigation and his slippery testimony to Congress during the confirmation process. You identify three traits that “infected” his approach to the job. Can you explain?
HONIG: Bill Barr is a liar, and I don’t use that term lightly. In the two fields where I’ve worked in my career, law and media, we are naturally, and probably healthily, reluctant to use that phrase. You’d say “someone misstated the facts” or “lacked candor” or was “disingenuous” or what have you. I think Bill Barr was given plenty of chances to fall back into one of those softer labels. But starting from the way he lied to the public about the Muller report, he lied about his lie almost within the Muller report. During one of those congressional testimonies, Bill Barr was asked by a member of Congress — I’m paraphrasing here — “Has anyone on the special counsel’s team voiced any displeasure to you with the way you characterized the report?” And Bill Barr just straight up leaned into the microphone and said, “No.” Well, it turned out that weeks before, Bill Barr had gotten a letter from Robert Muller saying, “You’ve misstated my conclusions and work in your in your four-page letter.” That is dishonesty heaped upon dishonesty. He lied to the public about why he fired SDNY U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman. Bill Barr tried to tell the public that Geoffrey Berman would be “stepping down.” Geoffrey Berman, hours later said, “Oh, no, I’m not.” Even with Lafayette Park — he tried to tell the media that no tear gas was used when that turned out to be untrue; no man-made chemicals were used; that turned out to be untrue. He lied about the threat of voter fraud. He turned [his stance] around after the election was over, but in the months leading up, he spread all sorts of falsehoods about the risk of massive voter fraud. So that’s trait one.
Trait two is he politicized DOJ. The way I was trained at DOJ is that politics should have nothing to do, ever, with anything you do. It’s perfectly legitimate for a new administration to say, “These are our policy priorities.” I worked my first four[-plus] years at DOJ under Republican AGs, and they prioritized certain types of prosecutions and certain practices. And then Obama won in 2008, and the Democrats took over, and they prioritized a different set of types of cases. That’s perfectly fine and legitimate. What’s not OK is to intertwine politics with DOJ’s prosecutorial function, with specific cases that are being prosecuted. And we saw Bill Barr do that in the Roger Stone case in a flagrant way and in the Michael Flynn case. Both times he tried to claim those cases just happened across [his] desk, [and had] nothing to do with Donald Trump constantly harping about them and tweeting about them. The fact that they were connected to Donald Trump is so damaging to the Justice Department and to everything it stands for.
The third one was Bill Barr tried to use the AG job to self-actualize his views on the law [and] on the need for a religious society. He’s a hard right, Federalist Society adherent. There’s nothing wrong with that, and that’s to be expected. Any attorney general will come into the job with certain a certain set of ideological views. To the extent he let those views influence his prosecutorial judgments, I think that’s wrong. But on his policy issues, that’s fine. I think he took it way too far. He argued that the president is essentially not at all accountable to Congress, and the courts, by and large, rejected that argument. More problematically, Bill Barr, it turns out, is what I call a culture warrior. He railed [during the 1990s] against the “homosexual movement” and how that was so damaging to the fabric of our society. He started to give hints of this [again] under Trump. He would rail about how this secularism, this nonreligious approach to public life, was damaging everything from the mental health of our population to the spike in crime rates to drug use. He said things about how a Judeo-Christian religiosity is the only true path for any moral, civilized society. Notice it’s not just religiosity, it’s Judeo-Christian religiosity, in particular. And he brought some of that to bear to his job as attorney general.