Attorney General William Barr’s defense of President Donald Trump amid impeachment is raising questions about potential conflicts of interest as legal experts accuse the Justice Department chief of ignoring his responsibility as the nation’s top prosecutor.
“This is a really strange situation with Barr, who has so many conflicts and is up to his eyeballs in all of the corruption surrounding Trump,” attorney Nick Akerman told Newsweek. Akerman served an assistant special prosecutor in the Watergate scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon.
The attorney general plays no official role in impeachment, but that hasn’t stopped Barr from coming to Trump’s defense on multiple occasions. The Justice Department’s top official often protected the Trump administration throughout the inquiry and went so far as to suggest that Democrats are “trivializing” impeachment by using it as a “political tool.”
Michael J. Stern, a former federal prosecutor, asserted that Barr’s loyalty to the White House is a “perversion” of his job as attorney general.
“There is an inherent conflict in Barr’s designated role as the chief law enforcement officer of this country and his efforts to protect the man who gave him his job. It is unfortunate that Bill Barr never misses an opportunity to place his thumb on the scales of justice in favor of Donald Trump. That’s not how it is supposed to be,” Stern told Newsweek.
Last week, Trump became just the third president in U.S. history to be impeached. The House of Representatives approved two articles of impeachment against him: abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
Democrats allege that Trump put his personal interests over the country’s by trying to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to announce a politically damaging investigation of Joe Biden and his son Hunter, as well as a probe of supposed Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. Republicans, on the other hand, say that Democrats are trying to remove Trump because they are afraid their party will lose the 2020 presidential election.
Akerman argued that Barr is a “major player” in the obstruction case against Trump because he advised the White House not to turn over the whistleblower complaint to Congress. That complaint jump-started the House’s impeachment probe, outlining the president’s troubling communication with the Ukrainian leader.
Barr was one of several White House officials to be implicated in the whistleblower’s complaint. He was also brought by Trump during his July 25 phone call with Zelenskiy. The two leaders agreed that Barr and Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, should work with Ukrainian officials.
“[Barr] should be performing no role here. He has a clear conflict of interest,” Michael Gerhardt, a constitutional law professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law, told Newsweek. Gerhardt testified alongside other legal scholars before the House Judiciary Committee earlier this month during the impeachment hearings. He did the same when the House impeached President Bill Clinton.
In the past, attorneys general have generally steered clear of getting involved in impeachment proceedings. In fact, Andrew Johnson’s attorney general resigned from the Justice Department so he could represent the president in his impeachment trial.
Next up for Trump is a trial in the Senate, where lawmakers will decide whether to convict him and remove him from office. Unlike other trials where Barr would lead the federal criminal prosecution, the Constitution mandates that the lawmakers serve as prosecutors and jurors.
Stern said it is “very unlikely” that Barr will become an integral part of the Senate impeachment process since Republicans are in control of the chamber and are allowed to dictate the rules for the trial. But Barr could be called as a witness if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell allows it.
Like Trump, Barr is also facing calls to be removed from office. Common Cause, a national government watchdog, sent a letter last week to every member of Congress urging them to impeach the attorney general. The nine-page document details several instances of Barr’s alleged ethical failures, including his handling of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia report and his regular defiance of congressional subpoenas.
“During his first 10 months in office, Attorney General Barr has made clear that, first and foremost, he serves President Donald Trump’s interests and not those of the United States,” the letter reads. The organization also described Barr as a “threat to national security” who has “violated his oath to the people he swore to protect.”