Attorney general Bill Barr gets an ethics complaint for Valentine’s Day

Lowering the Barr.
Lowering the Barr.
Image: Reuters
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US attorney general Bill Barr isn’t getting much love of late.

Today, he became the subject of a complaint to the Office of the Inspector General (OIG). The government watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) is requesting an investigation into Barr’s alleged violations of Justice Department (DOJ) rules and ethical conduct standards for executive branch employees.

At the heart of the complaint are Barr’s public comments about an ongoing inquiry—namely, the DOJ’s probe into the origins of the FBI investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election (aka “investigate the investigators”). His allegedly prejudicial “inflammatory and disparaging” statements on matters related to an active probe taint the inquiry’s integrity and public sentiment and appear to violate government rules and codes of conduct, CREW argues.

But that is not the sole problem, it adds, and there’s evidence to support that sentiment, this week especially.

Barr came under fire Tuesday after career prosecutors withdrew from the Roger Stone case, following president Donald Trump’s tweets disparaging their sentencing recommendations. The proposed punishment for Trump’s associate was within statutory guidelines, yet the DOJ subsequently filed a new sentencing memo with a reduced recommended sentence, claiming the action was unrelated to the president’s sentiments (meanwhile, an emboldened Trump suggested that the prosecutors doing their jobs had gone “rogue”).

Lawyers were furious. “Bill Barr’s DOJ is plainly nothing more than a satellite office of the White House,” said Glenn Kirschner, an NBC News and MSNBC legal analyst who worked as a federal prosecutor for 30 years. “Trump tweets his outrage and Barr reacts like a lapdog.”

Barr attempted to redeem himself yesterday, telling ABC News that it was “impossible” to do his job with the president’s continual public commentary undermining his legal authority. Barr insisted that he must do what he thinks is right, regardless of the president’s desires.

However, his view of what’s proper is so often identical to the president’s wants that not everyone was sold on his uncommonly critical response to the tweeter-in-chief. Given Barr’s track record, the cynicism was perhaps warranted.

Last year, for example, Barr’s initial summary of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into foreign election meddling and obstruction of justice by Trump mischaracterized and minimized the inquiry’s conclusions. Since, he’s advanced the Trump narrative that the FBI “spied” on the president’s campaign and called Mueller’s investigation a politically motivated “sham.”

So, some question whether Barr really needs the president to stop tweeting because he’s sincerely interested in the DOJ’s integrity as the nation’s chief law enforcement officer. Perhaps, in fact, his real complaint is that he can’t act as Trump’s puppet if the president discloses his desires on social media and exposes Barr’s role in making those wishes his command.

“[I]t sure looks like what he really meant was that it’s hard to keep acting to protect the president instead of enforce the law when Trump keeps saying the quiet part out loud,” CREW spokesman Jordan Libowitz told Quartz today. “He should be judged by his actions, and his actions harm the integrity of the Department of Justice.”

Whether the OIG will act on the request to initiate an investigation of Barr is unclear, however. The office has limited authority in this context. A provision in the Inspector General Act of 1978 carves out an exception to the general rule that the OIG is responsible for investigating alleged misconduct in executive branch agencies, leaving inquiries about the DOJ to the department’s own Office of Professional Responsibility.

Technically then, the OIG must ask Barr’s subordinates for the green light to inquire into their boss’s deeds and, if given, coordinate and cooperate with the very department that’s being probed. That seems highly unlikely to happen.

Still, doing nothing about Barr’s seeming submission to Trump—as evidenced by his actions and his apparent flouting of ethics rules and conduct codes—has dangerous long-term consequences that can’t be ignored. “If he keeps acting as if he were the president’s private attorney and not the Attorney General of the United States,” Libowitz warned, “Americans will continue to lose confidence in our justice system. And that is a terrifying precedent.”