William Barr began his second term as Attorney General of the United States on February 14th, 2019. His nomination and confirmation came during the already tumultuous Special Counsel investigation headed by Robert Mueller. Barr’s behavior in regards to the aforementioned Special Counsel is just one more in a long list of actions under Donald Trump’s regime that could be argued as stealth authoritarianism.
Varol describes stealth authoritarianism as a newfangled school of authoritarianism. Long gone are the pre-Cold War authoritarian practices, where leaders “openly repressed opponents by violence and harassment and subverted the rule of law to perpetuate their rule.” Instead, modern-day authoritarians use democratic institutions and mechanisms that exist in truly democratic regimes, and consolidate their power through those institutions.
I believe that William Barr’s nomination as Attorney General of the United States is a case of stealth authoritarianism. This argument resides on two fundamental points. First, for the ‘stealth’ portion of the concept, I will talk briefly about Barr’s nomination and confirmation. Second, for the ‘authoritarianism’, I will argue why I believe that Barr’s behavior has served to further entrench Donald Trump’s power and silence his opponents.
In December of 2018, Trump announced that Barr was his nomination to succeed Jeff Sessions as the new Attorney General. On February 7, 2019 the Senate Judiciary Committee held a vote on Barr, the outcome of which was a 12-10, party-line vote. Barr was confirmed as Attorney General on February 14, 2019 in a 54-45, near party-line vote. This is the portion of events that fall under ‘stealth’ part of ‘stealth authoritarianism’. As of right now, there have been no reported illegalities with the nomination and confirmation of William Barr. Thus, although the outcome of the actions did serve an authoritarian purpose, the method through which these actions were achieved were indeed legal and would have been perfectly acceptable in a democratic regime. Thus, this could be argued to be stealth authoritarianism.
The second part of the concept is perhaps the most important: authoritarianism. For this, I’d like to rewind to June, 2018. William Barr, then a private citizen, wrote a secret memo to the United States Department of Justice. This memo was later leaked by the New York Times. Within the 19-page piece, Barr argues that Mueller’s investigation seemed to be “proposing an unprecedented expansion of obstruction laws” that could have “grave consequences” to the executive branch. Furthermore, Barr argued in his memo that since there is no underlying crime of “collusion”, Trump inherently cannot be obstruction justice. So, with this in mind, it is clear that Trump knew that nominating Barr to the position of Attorney General would furnish him with an individual willing to defend his actions during the 2016 campaign.
Although Barr’s actions before his nomination appear to prove that he would be willing to further protect Trump from his critics were he to become the Attorney General, it is important to show that this truly did happen. In this endeavor, I will focus on two main points. First, Barr’s four-page summary to Congress in regards to the Mueller Special Counsel. A couple of days after Mueller handed over his final report to the Attorney General’s office, Barr sent a four-page summary to Congress (remember, the original document was over 400 pages and already included thorough summaries). In Barr’s summary, he writes that the special counsel “did not draw a conclusion – one way or the other – as to whether the examined conduct constituted obstruction.” This technique from Mueller was set in place to allow the Attorney General and Congress to determine whether the evidence constitutes a crime. Barr’s initial refusal to allow Congress to see the full final report, and the active role he took to spin the outcome of the report to help protect Trump from his critics are examples of authoritarianism.
The second time that Barr behaved outside of the democratic norms of his position and attempted to protect Trump from his critics came in the press conference on the day that Barr finally released the (redacted) full report from the special counsel. In this press conference, Barr clearly spun the conclusions of the report in a way that would benefit Trump, going so far as to use the President’s own preferred phrase: “no collusion”. Not only this, but when called out on his actions by a reporter who asked whether it was improper for Barr to attempt to spin the report before the public was even able to read it, Barr simply replied, “No.” and walked off stage.
Overall, Barr’s nomination for and actions as Attorney General are a great example of stealth authoritarianism as described by Varol. Although the methods through which Barr was nominated and confirmed were legal and institutionalized as part of the democratic regime in the United States, his actions and behavior go way beyond the norms of his position, particularly in regards to Barr’s protecting of President Trump from his critics.