As attorney general of the United States, William Barr serves at the pleasure of Donald J. Trump and takes direction from him as president of the United States. 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., seems to have a problem with that.
On a recent MSNBC appearance, Harris told host Rachel Maddow, “The attorney general is supposed to act on behalf of the people and not act as the president’s henchman.”
Harris made the statement after Maddow asked whether or not Barr had been given direction from the White House on his current probe into what led to his agency’s Russia election investigation.
Harris also sent a letter Friday asking DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz to look into whether the White House directed Barr to investigate anyone, saying, “There must be no doubt that the Department of Justice and its leadership stand apart from partisan politics, and resist improper attempts to use the power of federal law enforcement to settle personal scores.”
That talking point sounds great to Trump-haters and those looking to undermine AG Barr’s investigations. But it just doesn’t stand up to a simple understanding of the Constitution. Like it or not, President Trump is William Barr’s boss, and the attorney general serves at the president’s choice.
Executive appointees pursue the agenda of the president who nominated them. That’s what they do. They act on behalf of the people by pursuing the agenda of the guy the people elected.
And if the agenda is to find out what happened in some very shady-looking stuff at the DOJ and FBI during a previous administration, well, that job goes to the AG, folks.
It may sound like a great thing to have government officials and agencies that are completely independent from political considerations. But in the real, imperfect world that we inhabit, “independent” government is usually just fancy marketing for unaccountable government, and political considerations are what keep government actors in check.
But indeed, Americans should make sure that the people who enforce our laws “resist improper attempts to use the power of federal law enforcement to settle personal scores.”
After all, law enforcement officials could do some pretty bad stuff if they felt themselves too independent from political oversight and public backlash. They could, for example, target political candidates and their campaigns for clandestine investigation via dubious intelligence warrants based on specious political research documents. Some could even leak information about said investigations to a hungry, biased media, thereby giving fuel to their political opponents to bog them down with partisan investigations for years at a time.
And that’s the sort of thing that belongs in a corrupt banana republic or a totalitarian police state, not the United States of America. And that just happens to be the sort of thing Barr is investigating right now.
After all the high-flown language about serving the American people, law enforcement agencies and their heads have to be accountable to someone. And that someone has to be accountable to the voting public. That plus legislative oversight and legal checks from the judicial branch are how the AG remains accountable to the Constitution and the people.
Since she used to be California’s attorney general herself, Harris should be familiar with the concept.
Harris’ MSNBC appearance can be found here: