The Attorney General of the United States is the country’s top law enforcement officer, the lawyer for the U.S. government. But in our history too many attorneys general have focused less on the law than on the agenda, whims and politics of the president who appointed them. They have attacked and sought revenge against the president’s enemies, supported and covered for his friends and allies. And often done so with little regard for the Constitution or the civil liberties of American citizens.
All that is a pretty accurate description of U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr. How does Barr stack up against the worst attorneys general in American history?
Barr v. Palmer
Most discussions among historians about America’s worst attorney general start with A. Mitchell Palmer, attorney general from 1919 to 1921 under President Woodrow Wilson. Palmer warmed up for this gig during the war years by holding the position of Alien Property Custodian. In that position he was responsible for seizing and selling the assets of “enemies,” most of whom were German Americans, including a number of German brewers who Palmer determined were “unpatriotic.”
While many of the most vile attorneys general, like Barr, were carrying out the desires of the president who appointed them, Palmer’s racism and xenophobia seem to be self generated since during a good part of his term Wilson was incapacitated after suffering a stroke. The post World War I era in the U.S. was characterized by a Red Scare, a reaction to not only the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia but also labor union activity and anti-immigrant sentiment. What Palmer is best known for is the “Palmer Raids.” He went after anyone who he considered a dissident or radical and immigrants, especially eastern Europeans, and Blacks were high on his suspect list. The victims of the Palmer Raids were also held in detention for months without ever being charged or convicted and, when not blocked by the courts, the immigrants were deported.
Barr has ICE to do the administration’s bidding when it comes to rounding up immigrants, deporting them, or detaining them with no legal reason. But he jumped in the fray in Portland, arresting and detaining protesters who he claimed were “assaulting the government of the United States.” His escalation of rhetoric regarding the threat posed by the Portland protesters is right in line with what Palmer had to say about the “radicals” of his era.
Barr has repeatedly intervened to try to stop immigrants and asylum seekers from getting into the U.S. In one case he redefined the definition of torture to make that definition more narrow and make is less likely to be a reason to grant entry to an asylum seeker. He intervened in another case involving a Mexican man who sought asylum under a U.S. law which granted asylum to individuals who feared persecution because they were a member of a social group. The man’s family was under threat because his father refused to let a gang use his store. The Board of Immigration Appeals ruled that the man’s family constituted a social group. Barr reversed that ruling. He has also created an office for the “denaturalization” of U.S. citizens and has allowed the use of confidential therapy notes in deportation cases. Barr has sued cities and states that have adopted immigrant protection policies and, in a speech to the National Sheriffs Association he encouraged the sheriffs to join in on a “significant escalation” to retaliate against sanctuary cities and states.
When it comes to immigrants, radicals and protestors, Palmer and Barr are indeed birds of a feather.
Barr v. Daugherty
Henry M. Daugherty was attorney general from 1921-1924 under President Warren Harding. He secured that appointment after being Harding’s campaign manager. Harding brought to Washington with him a group of cronies who came to be known as the “Ohio Gang.” Daugherty was a card-carrying member. What the Harding Administration was best known for is corruption, most famously the Teapot Dome scandal, which involved a member of Harding’s cabinet taking bribes for the leasing of petroleum reserves.
Daugherty himself may have been looking to get a piece of the action. He was charged with improperly receiving funds from the sale of the American Metal Company, a German-American owned concern that had been seized during World War I. Three other members of the Harding administration faced similar charges. Daugherty would later be tried twice before the charges were dropped. In the second trial, all but one juror thought he was guilty.
Daugherty may or may not have known about the Teapot Dome scandal but he was part of an administration filled with corruption and at the very least he turned a blind eye toward it. Barr likewise is part of an administration filled with Trump cronies who are having more than their share of problems with the law.
Barrr has actively tried to drop or lessen the charges against Michael Flynn and Roger Stone. Flynn was Trump’s first National Security Advisor. He lasted 22 days. He was convicted of felony lying to the FBI. Barr has tried to have the case against him dropped before he could be sentenced. Stone has a decades long record as a sleazy political operator. He had worked on the campaigns of Nixon, Reagan, Dole and Bush II as well as Trump. Stone was convicted by a jury of five counts of lying to Congress, and one count each of witness tampering and obstruction of justice. Barr sought to get Stone a lighter sentence, a move that resulted in four career prosecutors resigning. Eventually Trump pardoned Stone. It will surprise no one if, in the future, we hear that Barr is trying to intervene on behalf of Swindling Steve Bannon.
Barr v. Gonzales
Alberto Gonzales was attorney general from 2005-2007. He was George W. Bush’s second attorney general. He is known for three things:
— he endorsed warrantless surveillance
— he supported “enhanced interrogation techniques,” aka torture
— he fired nine U.S. attorneys who refused to agree to a directive to go after the president’s political enemies.
Gonzales resigned from his position in 2007 “in the best interests of the department.” There were no dissenting opinions.
Barr’s history of warrantless surveillance goes back to before Gonzales. He was involved in the planning of the NSA mass phone surveillance program in the 90’s. During his first term as attorney general, from 1991-1993 under Bush I, he authorized the DEA to amass phone call data and ordered phone companies to turn over the records of phone calls to some 100 countries that he determined had drug traffickers.
Earlier this year he fired Geoffrey Berman, the head prosecutor of the Southern District of New York. The firing was done by press release. I’m sure it had nothing to do with the fact that Berman was in the process of investigating possible illegal activity by the Trump Organization.
Barr v. Mitchell
John Mitchell was Richard Nixon’s attorney general from 1969 to 1972. Before that, he was Nixon’s campaign manager. He is believed to have played a role in sabotaging the Paris Peace Accords, something deemed necessary for Nixon’s election victory. Mitchell fiercely went after anti-war demonstrators who he demonized. He authorized phone taps and preventive detention. What he wasn’t that keen on enforcing was school desegregation. Mitchell was the attorney general for a “law and order” administration. (Sound familiar?) He ended up in jail.
Mitchell planned the Watergate burglary that eventually brought down the Nixon administration. He was also actively involved in the cover-up and eventually he was convicted of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and perjury. He went to prison for 19 months.
When Barr authorized the tear gassing and removal of peaceful demonstrators in Washington so that Trump could march down the street for a photo op, it surely seemed to evoke the memory of John Mitchell. Even more so, Barr’s role in the Ukraine scandal that resulted in Trump being impeached. Nixon was on the verge of being impeached when he resigned.
We don’t know whether Barr was directly involved with Rudi Guiliani’s effort to tie the awarding of Congressionally-approved aid funds to a scheme to get the Ukrainian government to claim it was investigating Hunter and Joe Biden. But we do know Barr tried to cover up the whistleblower complaint that first exposed this. As was the case with Mitchell, the final chapter in Barr’s possible involvement and cover up will probably be written after he is out of office.
I have not even gone into Barr’s misrepresentation of the Mueller report and how he avoided making it available. Nor did I mention how he was held in criminal contempt for refusing to testify before Congress about Trump’s attempt to add a citizenship question to the census. And it’s pretty unprecedented that some 1,000 former Justice Department employees signed a letter calling on him to resign. But I think it’s fair to say that if every discussion of America’s worst attorney general starts with A. Mitchell Palmer, it ends with William Pelham Barr.