Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
In February 2019, William Barr strode into the Department of Justice as the 85th attorney general. He was on his second tour of duty, having first held the post under President George H.W. Bush. Despite some observers’ concerns about his criticism of the Russia investigation and, more generally, his expansive view of presidential authority, Mr. Barr assumed office with the reputation of a seasoned, wise man, a grown-up in an administration teeming with unruly brats. At the very least, he was an upgrade over then Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, the Trump toady installed as an emergency seat warmer when Jeff Sessions was ousted.
On Wednesday, Mr. Barr will slouch out of the cabinet with his ethical compass shattered, his reputation soiled and his dignity in flames. For fans of democracy, his departure should be met with rejoicing.
Back in the Bush days, Mr. Barr held that the attorney general’s “ultimate allegiance must be to the rule of law” rather than to “the president who appointed him,” as he said in a 1992 speech. This time around, his tenure seemed aimed at assuring Mr. Trump that he’d been kidding about all that. Whether misrepresenting the Mueller report to cover the president’s backside, ordering federal law enforcement to remove peaceful demonstrators from in front of the White House or eroding public confidence in the electoral process, Mr. Barr has repeatedly made clear where his true loyalties lie. Hint: not with the American people.
Unlike many Trump lackeys, the attorney general wasn’t merely sucking up to the president — though there was plenty of that. He also used Mr. Trump’s autocratic proclivities to advance his own long-held vision of executive power. He was seen by many as the administration’s most dangerous henchman.
Despite all he did for the president, Mr. Barr still wound up on the naughty list after refusing to advance Mr. Trump’s baseless claims of widespread voter fraud and for not working hard enough to smear Joe Biden’s son Hunter. On Dec. 14, the president tweeted that Mr. Barr would be stepping down “just before Christmas to spend the holidays with his family.”
Perhaps dissatisfied with the violence already done to his legacy, the attorney general submitted a resignation letter that should be required reading for aspiring sycophants. He gushed about how “honored” and “proud” he was to have played his part in Mr. Trump’s “unprecedented achievements” — achievements “all the more historic” for occurring “in the face of relentless, implacable resistance” and a vicious “partisan onslaught,” the “nadir” of which were the “baseless accusations of collusion with Russia. Few could have weathered these attacks, much less forge ahead with a positive program.” On and on he fawned, cementing his place in the bootlickers hall of fame.
With the cord cut, Mr. Barr has been inching away from the president the past couple of days. On Monday, he said he saw no need to appoint special counsels either to oversee the D.O.J.’s inquiry into Hunter Biden’s taxes or to investigate Mr. Trump’s election-fraud fantasies. Sorry. This is where too little meets too late.
The attorney general will not be the only Trumpie to retreat amid a gag-inducing swirl of fawning, preening, base stoking and earth salting. Also last week, in discussing the transition with career officials in the education department, Secretary Betsy Devos called on them to “resist.” Declaring that her goal had always been “to do what’s right for students,” she pleaded with the troops to follow her noble example even after she is gone.
This is pretty rich coming from an education chief most likely to be remembered for championing the interests of for-profit colleges above those of students. It also seems doubtful that officials will embrace Ms. Devos’s self-congratulatory lecture after she spent the past four years clashing with them and blaming them for making it hard to get things done.
Over at the Pentagon, Trump appointees are reportedly being less than helpful in getting the incoming Biden administration up to speed. Meetings have been postponed, and the friction has broken into public view. Last week, acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller disputed a report by Axios that he had ordered a departmentwide halt to transition cooperation. He insisted the camps had mutually agreed to take a break until after the new year. The Biden team called this balderdash, and the transition’s executive director slammed the Pentagon for “recalcitrance.” This is hardly the kind of seamless handoff of power that inspires confidence in America’s national security.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is having a bumpy final stretch of a different sort. In a Friday radio interview, he noted that “we can say pretty clearly that it was the Russians” behind the recently exposed mass hack of U.S. government agencies and businesses. On Saturday, the president undercut him with a tweet, based on nothing, suggesting that China may have been the culprit. Mr. Pompeo has yet to comment on his boss’s alternative theory.
This humiliation came just a few days after Mr. Pompeo’s holiday-party debacle. Dismissing Covid-19 safety recommendations — including those issued by his own department — the secretary invited hundreds of guests to an indoor bash at the State Department last Tuesday. Only a few dozen people showed up. Mr. Pompeo canceled his scheduled speech, which raised some eyebrows until it was announced Wednesday that he was in quarantine after being exposed to the coronavirus.
Way to own the libs, Mr. Secretary.
Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, seems set on departing in a blaze of disinformation and belligerence. Since the election, she has been working overtime, including frequent appearances on Fox News, to promote the president’s risible tale of voting fraud. At a news conference last month, Ms. McEnany — who has been pulling double duty as a top Trump campaign surrogate — went so far over the line with her fraud fiction that Fox News’s Neil Cavuto felt compelled to cut away from her remarks. Give the gal points for shamelessness.
Of course, none of these underlings are likely to come close to the boss in executing a graceless, puerile, destructive exit. As the clock ticks down, the president is furiously casting about for a way to cling to power — Anyone up for a Christmas coup? — even as he works to divide and weaken the nation that has fired him. If he can’t have his way, he’s up for smashing as many toys as possible on his way out.
So much for Mr. Trump — or his people — ever growing into the job.