The movie “Vice,” directed by Adam McKay and starring Christian Bale, was released to critical acclaim in 2018. In the film, McKay recounts a widely-accepted narrative about the George W. Bush administration; while President Bush (played by Sam Rockwell) bumbled around as a blithe but generally well-meaning idiot, Vice President Dick Cheney (played by Bale) effectively ran the government, orchestrating the administration’s most significant (and nefarious) actions, notably the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and the widespread use of torture. The film also focuses on Cheney and John Yoo’s, deputy assistant attorney general, promotion of the unitary executive theory, which posits that the president, as head of the executive branch, has absolute power over the entirety of the branch (and therefore, all its decisions). As the film highlights, it is obvious in retrospect that the defining character in Bush’s administration was not Bush himself, but rather Cheney.
Ever since Donald Trump first descended the escalator at Trump Tower to announce his bid for the presidency on June 16, 2015, American politics has seemingly revolved around him. His actions, political stances and tweets have defined American political discourse over the past several years, and his media dominance is unparalleled. And yet, despite all that, history will not show Trump to be the defining figure of his own administration; rather it will be his attorney general, William Barr.
First, despite Trump’s appeal as a populist Republican (accompanied by his normalization of overt racism, sexism and xenophobia in American political discourse) his actual policies are well-aligned with the traditional Republican orthodoxy and completely unremarkable. Trump’s most notable campaign promises, such as building a wall along the Mexican border (and forcing Mexico to pay for it) and “draining the swamp” have not come to fruition; there is no wall, and the swamp is even more densely filled with rich Washington insiders than it was previously. Instead, Trump’s most significant policy accomplishments to date are passing sweeping tax cuts and appointing conservative judges to the courts, things which any of the Republican Party’s 2016 presidential candidates, from Ted Cruz to Jeb Bush, could have accomplished.
In reality, the most significant development of the Trump presidency is not anything Trump has said or done himself, but rather Attorney General Barr’s efforts to strengthen the executive branch and protect the president from facing consequences for his actions. From the beginning of his time as president, Trump has disregarded both established political norms and explicit legal guidelines that the president must adhere to, from continuing to profit off his businesses as president to obstructing justice to attempting to use his power for politically-motivated investigations.
Like Yoo, Barr is a firm believer in the unitary executive theory, and crucially for Barr, the Trump presidency is the perfect vehicle for advancing this theory (and irreparably unbalancing the American system of checks and balances). While Trump continually violates the rules laid out for the executive branch, Barr has strategically been using that as an opportunity to justify expanding the branch’s power, continually protecting Trump from facing justice along the way. Although many see this as Barr simply doing the president’s bidding, this perspective fails to consider the true scope of the issue: Barr is not an apparatchik for Trump personally, but rather for the executive branch as an entity.
From the beginning, Barr’s mission has been to protect Trump and expand the executive’s power at all costs, sheltering Trump from political and legal accountability. Before he was even appointed attorney general, Barr sent an 18-page memo to Trump’s deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, in which he said that Trump’s firing of James Comey (and attempted firing of Robert Mueller) was justified, because the president has “complete authority to start or stop a law enforcement proceeding.” Many perceived the memo to effectively be an application for the role as Trump’s full-time attorney general, and if so, it worked: on Dec. 7, 2018, Trump announced he was selecting Barr to replace acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker. Since then, Barr has worked tirelessly to enact his vision of the unitary executive, using Trump’s scandals to further his cause. In October 2019, Barr and the Department of Justice filed a motion to try and stop Manhattan’s District Attorney from subpoenaing Trump’s tax returns, setting up a clash between state and federal prosecutors in which the DOJ was effectively acting as the chief executive’s personal legal team.
More recently, Barr has become even more brazen: First, Barr and the DOJ recently dropped their criminal case against Trump’s former national security advisor, Michael Flynn, who was accused of lying about his contacts with Russia in the leadup to Trump’s inauguration. Despite the fact that Flynn had already twice pleaded guilty, Barr decided to drop the case, presumably to appease Trump and send the message that acting illegally, if done to benefit the chief executive, is acceptable. On June 19, Barr took it a step further: Channeling Richard Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre, he attempted to fire Geoffrey Berman, the attorney for the Southern District of New York, the court which has ongoing investigations into the actions of Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani, and previously sentenced one of Trump’s former lawyers, Michael Cohen, to three years in prison.
After Berman released a statement on Twitter saying he planned to remain in his post until “a presidentially appointed nominee is confirmed by the Senate” (with the clear implication being that Berman did not believe Barr had the authority to remove him), Barr sent Berman a letter telling him he’d been removed by Trump. However, this letter came only hours after Trump had said “I’m not involved … that's his (Barr’s) department, not my department.” By not presenting a united front with his attorney general, Trump unintentionally revealed his great deal about his relationship with Barr: While Trump signs off on forms and gives Barr’s actions legitimacy through his role as the chief executive, Barr is clearly the mastermind actually planning and organizing the administration’s most audacious schemes.
As much as Bush’s legacy is not shaped primarily by his own decisions, but rather by Cheney’s, Trump’s legacy will be shaped by Barr’s. Cheney’s work expanding the executive branch’s power over foreign conflict closely mirrors Barr’s efforts to expand the unitary executive theory today. Ultimately, both used politically inept presidents to re-mold the executive branch, advancing their own political and legal beliefs right under their bosses’ noses. Although it is too early to know the specific implications of Barr’s work, it is clear he has systematically weakened executive oversight and helped shield the chief executive from legal and political scrutiny, furthering the power imbalance between the legislative, executive and judicial branches. Considering the far-reaching implications of Barr’s actions, it is likely that decades from now, when scholars look back on the Trump presidency, it will not be defined by Trump’s own work, but by Barr’s.
Zack Blumberg is a junior in the College of Literature, Science & the Arts and can be reached at email@example.com.