Bill Barr quit. What finally spooked him?

U.S. Attorney General William Barr speaks Oct. 22 at a roundtable in downtown Indianapolis. Robert Scheer/IndyStar/Tribune News Service

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (Tribune News Service) — Attorney General William Barr has resigned with a little more than a month left in President Donald Trump’s administration.

This seems to suggest that Barr thinks what happens in the next five weeks could irretrievably tarnish his legacy. If so, that’s pretty stunning, considering how much Barr has already diminished his reputation and that of the Justice Department with his pro-Trump shenanigans.

What’s the January surprise Barr wants no part of? One possibility is that Barr wants to create bureaucratic distance between himself and the president so that he can say he resigned rather than serving out his term.

But this seems implausible, even for a canny bureaucratic operator like Barr, given how close he has been to the presidency. And it certainly seems at odds with the fawning tone of his resignation letter.

Another option is that Barr realizes that Trump plans to continue challenging the election outcome. Barr has been willing to tolerate Trump’s arguments thus far, even if he himself has refused to say that Justice has evidence of meaningful fraud. Yet the prospect of increasingly wild claims of conspiracy and an inauguration without Trump in attendance might perhaps be enough for Barr to prefer to be out of town — and out of the administration — for the next few weeks.

The most likely possibility, however, involves presidential pardons, and perhaps legally questionable executive orders designed to make more permanent some of Trump’s policies.

The president can issue pardons without the attorney general or the Department of Justice. The Constitution gives the pardon power to the chief executive alone. But there is a pardon office in Justice, and a president who entirely ignores or sidesteps its recommendations could taint his attorney general.

Barr knows all about late-term pardons. He made his own reputation at the end of George H.W. Bush’s administration by recommending pardons for Iran/Contra figures. Those pardons effectively ended the investigation into the scandal — and insulated Bush, who might have been implicated had the investigation continued.

Back then, Barr’s recommendation for the pardon helped insulate the president from the criticism that he was being self-serving. But things would be different now.

Say Trump issues a blanket pardon for all ICE agents during his presidency. Or for his family members.

Or for himself. There would be no way Barr could avoid looking like he had gone along with it — short of resigning in protest.

In other words, instead of the attorney general insulating the president by recommending pardons, the president would be discrediting the attorney general by issuing outrageous pardons without the top lawyer’s consent.

The same would be true of any executive orders issued by the White House over the objections of the Office of Legal Counsel at Justice. Barr would look ineffectual — which is worse, in some quarters, than looking like the president’s crony.

Whatever Barr’s reasoning, we may not hear the full story of his resignation for some time — not unless and until he decides to share it.

Barr has done lasting harm to the Department of Justice and the rule of law. His resignation should not be allowed to absolve him of his efforts to enable Trump to use the once-proud department as a personal tool of partisan influence.

What Trump does next, however, might give us a hint about what spooked the man who misled the public about Robert Mueller’s investigation; appointed a special counsel to investigate the investigators of Trump/Russia collusion; and spread false claims about election fraud before the vote.

It would have to be pretty bad.

Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and host of the podcast “Deep Background.” He is a professor of law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “The Three Lives of James Madison: Genius, Partisan, President.” Distributed by Tribune Content Agency. © 2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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(3) comments

JohnMcElroy

I'm leaning toward upcoming pardons as a big reason for Barr's resignation. Also resignation sounds a little better than fired. The word being heard is pardons for Snowden and Julian Assange. Both of those major pardons come with major controversy something Mr Barr may want to remove himself from. I believe we can expect more antics in Trump's last 32 days.

Eagle24

[thumbup]

Eagle24

Feldman's article cites a lot of scenarios for the reason Barr, holding one of the most powerful positions in the country, would quit after less than 2 years on the job, with only a month left to serve under POTUS... What part of this last month doesn't he want to be involved with... especially after noting the lack of fraud in the election... I precursor to a nefarious action by Trump... only time will tell.. Can't wait for the next chapter of the novel on this chaos....

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