Perhaps with only the exception of Donald Trump himself, Attorney General William Barr has emerged this year as one of the most important and transformative figures in American politics. As the head of the Justice Department, Barr has made it clear that things in Washington – and around the country – are going badly astray. Under his purview, the DOJ has refocused its attention on the Chinese threat, on protecting free speech and freedom of religion, and on battling corrupt Democrats on Capitol Hill who want to turn every political disagreement into a matter of law.
While Barr has rankled feathers across the Democratic Party and the media for his willingness to call out corruption and evil where he sees it, his remarks this week at Hillsdale College in Michigan came as a surprise to many. In his remarks, Barr not only criticized the usual suspects, he also turned a sharp eye towards his own Department of Justice. Barr said that he has prosecutors under his command more interested in being “headhunters” on the prowl for prominent suspects than they are in defending the Constitution.
Barr also took exception to the idea that it is somehow inappropriate for him to weigh in on individual cases, assuring listeners that as Attorney General, he is invested with the full prosecutorial power – and discretion – of the federal government. That means, he explained, that he has every right (if not the duty) to overrule the “permanent bureaucracy” of lifetime prosecutors in the agency.
“The men and women who have ultimate authority in the Justice Department are thus the ones on whom our elected officials have conferred that responsibility — by presidential appointment and Senate confirmation,” Barr said. “That blessing by the two political branches of government gives these officials democratic legitimacy that career officials simply do not possess.
“Name one successful organization where the lowest level employees’ decisions are deemed sacrosanct. There aren’t any,” Barr continued. “Letting the most junior members set the agenda might be a good philosophy for a Montessori preschool, but it’s no way to run a federal agency. Good leaders at the Justice Department — as at any organization — need to trust and support their subordinates. But that does not mean blindly deferring to whatever those subordinates want to do.”
Barr, of course, has faced criticism for putting his thumb on the scale in the Roger Stone case, and Democrats have eyed his investigation of the origins of the Russia probe with an equally critical eye. But in his Hillsdale remarks, Barr made it clear that when it comes to prosecutorial decisions at the federal level, he is the final word.
And maybe – just maybe – if the career prosecutors underneath him were more concerned with justice than trying to “get” the guy in the White House, Barr wouldn’t have to make so many of these decisions himself.