Holding the Government Accountable

Injustice: Tracking Bill Barr’s Misconduct as Attorney General

(Photo of William Barr: U.S. Marshals / Shane T. McCoy; Illustration: CJ Ostrosky / POGO)

Updated November 30, 2020, to include additional items in the timeline

The Department of Justice, led by the attorney general, has a unique role in our government. The attorney general, as the nation’s top law enforcement official, is entrusted with ensuring that the department acts with impartiality and independence to uphold the rule of law. And although the attorney general is presidentially appointed and works within the executive branch, the Justice Department’s mandate is to treat the people of the United States, not the president, as its client. Inherent in the department’s and the attorney general’s responsibilities is also to act in accordance with reasonable checks and balances.

Under Attorney General William Barr, the Justice Department has repeatedly strayed from its commitment to independence and the rule of law. Barr has demonstrated a disregard for these values, putting personal and political priorities first and undermining the constitutional separation of powers—in short, he has acted in a manner unbefitting the powerful position of attorney general.

We’ve identified a long string of actions that constitute serious misconduct, and may inflict lasting damage to the Justice Department.

Looking at Barr’s tenure since his February 2019 confirmation, we’ve identified a long string of actions that constitute serious misconduct, and may inflict lasting damage to the Justice Department. These actions generally fall into four key categories of misconduct that are antithetical to the department’s responsibilities to the public and to the Constitution. Namely, Barr has on numerous occasions interfered with impartial prosecutions, prioritized politics over justice, undermined the independent special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, and hindered congressional oversight. Below, subject matter experts explain the significance of each theme in greater detail.

POGO has produced a timeline to provide a thorough look at the improper actions Barr has taken, their impact, and how they form an escalating pattern of undermining the Justice Department’s proper role in the executive branch. As Barr continues to oversee activities such as pending investigations that he has politicized, it is critical to examine the breadth of his misconduct thus far, and view any potentially improper actions he may take in the context of this pattern of wrongdoing.

A few notes on format and content: The timeline does not exclusively track Barr’s misconduct. In order to provide a more complete picture, it begins with a small set of relevant events prior to Barr’s appointment, and also tracks related developments, such as other officials’ responses to Barr’s actions; the release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report and other high-profile investigations; indictments, convictions, and sentences; and more. The timeline also includes a number of isolated acts of misconduct that may not be part of a series of actions, but are nonetheless necessary to highlight given their implications for critical issues such as civil rights and civil liberties.

Focused primarily on the four categories of misconduct discussed above, the timeline also tracks activities centered on five key areas and contexts in which many important interconnected events took place:

  • The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. These entries are labeled “SDNY.”
  • The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia. These entries are labeled “DC U.S. Attorney’s Office.”
  • The special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. These entries are labeled “Russia Investigation.”
  • Efforts to delegitimize the investigation of Russian interference, and baseless claims that the Trump campaign was subject to unlawful surveillance. These entries are labeled “Spying Claims.”
  • Interactions with Congress. These entries are labeled “Congress.”

Types of Misconduct

Undermining the Special Counsel

It is a fundamental tenet of the law, as Edward Coke put it almost 400 years ago, that “no man can be a judge in his own case.” All the more so when the man is president of the United States. And that is why having some independent investigative authority to stand as a bulwark against presidential criminality is important. The special counsel provisions that authorized Robert Mueller’s investigation of Donald Trump are a response to the age-old question: Who will watch the watchmen? How do we make sure that those who are responsible for leading us are not a threat to the citizens of the very union they are bound to protect? In an independent special counsel, our nation hoped it had found the answer.
—Paul Rosenzweig, Senior Fellow, R St. Institute, and former Senior Counsel, Whitewater Investigation

Prioritizing Politics over Justice

A fundamental premise of a fair justice system is that all Americans are treated equally. The Justice Department, which is charged with investigating and prosecuting federal crimes, can only be effective if it not only is perceived as conducting its work free of political influence, but actually conducts its work in a nonpartisan and independent manner. Although policy priorities may shift from administration to administration, a fundamental commitment to enforcing the law and protecting national security without regard to inappropriate political influence has traditionally been baked into the culture of the department. When public confidence begins to erode in the department's independent exercise of its substantial powers, public safety and national security are weakened, and our collective societal fabric begins to fray.
—Carrie Cordero, Robert M. Gates Senior Fellow, Center for a New American Security, and former Counsel to the Assistant Attorney General for National Security

Interfering with Impartial Prosecutions

Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson was also the chief prosecutor of the Nuremburg War Crimes Tribunals. Before these positions, he served as attorney general and spoke to a group of United States Attorneys about the discretion a prosecutor has over a person's "life, liberty and reputation." He deemed the power as good if used properly but if driven by improper motives, the prosecutor becomes "one of the worst". Having been a state, military, and federal prosecutor, I attest to the non-negotiable requirement that prosecutions must be based solely on the evidence and the law. Given the enormous power prosecutors wield, politics cannot play a part in charging decisions. Any deviation from this historical practice is anathema to the rule of law
—David Iglesias, Former United States Attorney for the District of New Mexico

Hindering Congressional Oversight

Checks and balances are the immune system of our democracy, vital to its functioning and survival. Our Constitution designed Congress to be a rigorous check on the executive – in creating laws that set the bounds of executive power, in passing a budget to fund what it can (and cannot) do, and in providing direct oversight over the executive and its officers. Ability to question officials, to obtain relevant documents, and to investigate without obstruction and delay are critical to Congress’ role. Efforts to undermine Congressional oversight are incompatible with a democratic society in which the executive is subject to checks, limits, and judgment by both the people and its coequal branches of government.
—Danielle Brian, Executive Director of the Project On Government Oversight