Shortly before 5 p.m. on November 15, Attorney General William P. Barr arrived at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., his owlish face wearing a heavy expression. He and his entourage rushed by the lobby bar, where a television was tuned to CNN’s coverage of another day of damning impeachment hearings and raging presidential tweets. Inside a gilded ballroom, hundreds of conservative lawyers — many of them, like Barr, veterans of previous Republican administrations — were gathered to hear him deliver an address to the annual conference of the Federalist Society. “It will come as little surprise to this group,” Barr began, “that I’ve chosen to speak about the Constitution’s approach to executive power.” Even by the standards of this brazen era in Washington, in which all subtext is banished, the theme of the evening was a little on-the-nose — a startlingly explicit case for strengthening Donald Trump’s hold on American government.
“The grammar-school-civics-class version of our Revolution is that it was a rebellion against monarchical tyranny, and that in framing our Constitution, one of the preoccupations, the main preoccupation of the Founders, was to keep the executive weak,” Barr told the audience. “This is misguided.” Instead, Barr advocates for what is known as the “unitary executive theory,” which challenges the long-established doctrine that the president’s control over his branch of government is shared, to some degree, with Congress and the courts. “Whenever I see a court opinion that uses the word share,” Barr said, “I want to run in the other direction.” Critics say that in its maximalist form, the theory is a license for authoritarianism — a concern that Barr dismissed with ridicule.
“One of the more amusing aspects of modern progressive polemic is their breathless attacks on the unitary executive theory,” Barr said. He paused for effect, waved his arms, and shouted ghoulishly: “Bwaaaaaaaaaa!” He recounted his own confirmation hearing, at which Democratic senators pressed him to explain his muscular philosophy. “This is not ‘new,’ and it’s not a ‘theory,’” Barr said. If anything, he argued, the president’s rightful power had been stolen, a view shaped by his personal history. Barr started his career as a CIA analyst in 1973 in the midst of Watergate. At the time, the Agency was besieged by revelations of its misdeeds, congressional investigations, and political battles over regulation of intelligence activities. But where others saw the post-Watergate reforms as a triumph of accountability, Barr viewed them as the beginning of a constitutional wrong turn. At the Mayflower, he spoke of the “steady grinding down of the executive branch’s authority that accelerated after Watergate,” now exacerbated by partisan conflict.
“Immediately after President Trump won election, opponents inaugurated what they called the resistance,” Barr said. “They rallied around an explicit strategy of using every tool and maneuver to sabotage the functioning of the executive branch and his administration. Now, ‘resistance’ is the language used to describe insurgency against rule imposed by an occupying military power. It obviously connotes that the government is not legitimate. This is a very dangerous and indeed incendiary notion to import into the politics of a democratic republic.” Without mentioning the impeachment hearings, Barr accused Democrats in Congress of using “constant harassment” to “incapacitate the executive branch” and the administration’s agenda. Those who accused Trump of acting like an anti-democratic menace, Barr said, had it backward. “In waging a scorched-earth, no-holds-barred war of resistance against this administration,” he said, “it is the left that is engaged in a systematic shredding of norms and undermining the rule of law.”
Barr’s message was met with applause in the room and a savage reaction outside it. On social media, liberal commentators howled in protest, while his most important audience, @realDonaldTrump, retweeted a video clip of his attack on the resistance. A few days afterward, Checks and Balances, a group of conservative lawyers and scholars who oppose Trump, issued a statement calling his “autocratic vision” ahistorical and contrary to the Constitution. Barr was untroubled. [Continue reading…]