No cabinet official can get a President in more trouble faster than his Attorney General. Administration policies can fail quickly if they are not ably defended from legal attack. Legal overreaching can create a climate of public opinion that condemns the administration as lawless. Bad legal advice can lock the administration into bad policies. Ethical lapses at the Department of Justice can taint the entire government.
It is thus very fortunate that the President has made his most effective appointment in William Barr. While some of the President’s initial appointments were also men of stature and judgment, like Rex Tillerson and Jim Mattis, they disagreed with the President on fundamental issues central to their departments, something ultimately disqualifying in a high government official. In contrast, William Barr agrees with Trump on the most important issues within DOJ’s purview. Like Trump, he believes that borders must be secured, that violent crime should remain a priority for law enforcement, and that courts should not be the mechanism for fundamental social change.
Others appointees, like Scott Pruitt and Ryan Zinke, agreed with Trump, but ethical inattention and lapses undermined their effectiveness. Barr, in contrast, has a reputation for integrity.
Barr’s predecessor Jeff Sessions had a substantial career as a Senator and was ethically above reproach. Nevertheless, his incompetence got the administration into continuous trouble. For instance, he should never have rested the DACA repeal entirely on the notion that the policy was illegal but should have argued instead that the administration had discretion to end it. This failure is bedeviling the administration in the courts. And his decision to separate children from their parents at the border was a public relations disaster, as anyone with an understanding of how this decision would play in the media could have predicted.
Barr will make no such mistakes. He will make the best arguments for administration policies that can be defended. He will not undertake frolics and detours in lawsuits that have no hope of victory. He will not support Trump policies with tactics that will undermine the possibility of their success.
And he nevertheless can be tough when he needs to be. Just look at the video of his confirmation hearing where he stood up to the most partisan Democratic Senators, like Kamala Harris and Mazie Hirono. Hirono implied he had campaigned to become Trump’s Attorney General and was untrustworthy. Barr shut her down by bluntly telling her that if she thought him untrustworthy she should simply vote against him.
I should note that I worked as a deputy to Barr at the Office of Legal Counsel in the first Bush administration. I mention this to provide some context for my strong judgments here. I did not always agree with Barr, nor do I agree with him now on some issues, like asset forfeiture. But I am confident he will bring stability to an administration that has been harmed by chaos, including that emanating from the Department of Justice.