Nearly 500 years ago, King Henry VIII sacked his most loyal courtier, Thomas Cromwell, removing him from office and then beheading him. Today, Attorney General William Barr suffers the same Cromwellian fate, his sycophantic fealty to President Donald Trump rewarded by being tossed onto the pile of discarded Trumpian supporters. Fortunately for Barr we have given up the tradition of beheading, but he was given the modern-day equivalent send off — the opportunity, Trump said, to “spend more time with his family” (as if leaving the job Dec. 23, 28 days before it would end, is necessary to assure his family’s holiday happiness).
Crowell’s tenure was marked by his willingness to do almost anything to satisfy King Henry. He arranged the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine, Queen of Aragon, so that the King could marry Anne Boleyn. As the King’s chief minister, he oversaw the expropriation of Catholic church properties and advanced the doctrine of royal supremacy over the church. His devotion to the king knew no bounds.
Barr’s tenure is marked by the same blind loyalty to a leader and to his conception of power. Throughout his time in office, Barr acted more like the president’s personal advocate than like an attorney general whose job it is to represent the people and government of the United States. That is what Barr will be most remembered for from the past two years.
Barr’s legacy of presidential supremacy
► Almost his first act in office was to defend Trump by wildly mischaracterizing Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report. That report credibly collected evidence that the president had obstructed justice and laid out extensive evidence of connections between the Trump campaign and Russian actors. In defending the president against these claims. Barr sank into obfuscation and outright misdescription.
► Not content with misstating the law, Barr also took operational control of defending the president’s political image. He personally directed law enforcement and military officials to clear Lafayette Square of protesters last summer so that Trump could walk across the part and have a Bible-holding photo op in front of St. John’s Church.
► Diverging from the long-standing practice of attorney general neutrality, Barr injected himself into the presidential election, warning that if Biden won, the United States would be “irrevocably committed to the socialist path.”
► He interfered in the criminal investigation of Trump confidants Roger Stone and Michael Flynn to protect the interests of the president. In Stone’s case he sought to get Stone a lighter sentence. In Flynn’s he sought to dismiss criminal charges to which Flynn had already pled guilty. In both cases, career prosecutors at the Department of Justice resigned in protest at Barr’s political interference.
► He likewise politicized the criminal investigation process by continuing a seemingly-unending investigation into the Russian investigators — an inquiry he has now sought to entrench by the appointment of a special counsel in a manner that is clearly intended to limit the discretion of the incoming Biden-appointed attorney general.
► He refused to recognize the lawful authority of Congress to conduct oversight of the executive branch. On Barr’s watch, Trump’s Department of Justice has fought every subpoena issued by Congress, sometimes on the fanciful ground that the president is absolutely immune from congressional review.
► But most fundamentally, Barr served Trump by promoting the principle that the president is above the law. At every turn, Barr has advanced a view that the executive branch is not restrained by our constitutional system of checks and balances and that the president is not subject to criminal review of his actions. Here, perhaps, Barr most closely mirrors Cromwell, whose view of royal supremacy is an almost perfect analog for Barr’s view of presidential supremacy.
Barr is the Cromwell of the Trump era
In the end, Cromwell lost his head because he could got give Henry the one thing Henry wanted most desperately — a male heir. It simply proved impossible, and for the sin of failing to achieve the impossible, Cromwell was removed and executed.
Barr, likewise, has lost his job because of his failure to do the impossible. Confronted with the hard reality that there was no evidence of significant fraud in this election — indeed that it was, as Trump’s cybersecurity chief put it, “the most secure election in history” (for which apostasy he, too, got fired) — Barr simply could not conjure an alternate reality in which Donald Trump won reelection.
And for that failure Barr, like Cromwell, met the fate of all failed loyalists, discarded on the ash heap of history where his memory will deservedly be that of a faithful subordinate to a failed leader. The best thing that can be said of him — quite literally the very best — is that he refused to join other Republican leaders as they followed Trump like lemmings off the cliff of electoral authoritarianism. His refusal to influence the election by announcing an investigation of Hunter Biden, combined with his refusal to call the election a fraud, show that even for the most devoted adherents there are lines they cannot or will not cross. But after all of Barr’s failures that have gone before, that is modest praise, indeed.
And so, William P. Barr’s legacy is this: He is the Thomas Cromwell of our age.