Tag Archives: unitary executive

A Different Kind Of Coup

Remember Darth Vader–aka Dick Cheney–and his theory of the “unitary executive”? Cheney wasn’t the only devotee of expanded power for the Presidency–it turns out that William Barr is a true believer, and far more dangerous than most of us previously realized.

A recent article in the American Prospect is chilling.

I have Article II, where I have the right to do whatever I want as president,” Donald Trump said in a recent speech to a far-right-wing campus organization. Trump is not a constitutional scholar, and he would not care at all about “constitutional architecture” were he not president. So where did this sweeping claim to executive power come from?….

But for Trump’s attorney general, William Barr, and others on the right, the effort to take power for the president from the courts and especially from Congress has been a 40-year project. Barr and his comrades may find statements like “I have Article II” crass and narcissistic, but in their view Trump is generally correct. Executive power maximalists argue that the “original intent” of the framers of the Constitution was to create a strong president with concentrated power and a largely advisory Congress.

The author notes that the most dangerous presidential power–and one that Trump’s lawyers are currently asserting– is the power to withhold information from Congress and the American people.

Neither Congress nor the courts nor voters can effectively check power abused in secret. And Congress’s power to require information from the president may be the power most difficult to reclaim if Congress yields that power in a tactical retreat in advance of the 2020 election.

Evidently, the expansion of presidential power–and the corresponding evisceration of Congressional authority–has been a 40-year mission for William Barr.

Barr (one of the original founders of the Federalist Society) worked in the Reagan White House with a group of lawyers who argued that the presidency had improperly lost constitutional powers after Watergate. Edwin Meese even asserted that the president could disregard Supreme Court decisions with which he disagreed.

Even very conservative legal scholars consider these assertions unfounded, and there is virtually nothing in the historical record that would support them. (The entire point of  “checks and balances” was to thwart an internal “coup” that would turn the president into either a monarch or a servant of Congress.)

After efforts by Reagan’s lawyers to challenge Congressional oversight failed in the Supreme Court,

Barr wrote and circulated throughout the executive branch a militant memorandum entitled “Common Legislative Encroachments on Executive Branch Authority.” The memo called for aggressive challenges to Congress’s claims to authority: “Only by consistently and forcefully resisting such congressional incursions can executive branch prerogatives be preserved.”

As the author notes,

The bread and butter of congressional oversight of the executive branch is to examine executive branch actions and the reasons for those actions. According to Barr, none of that is any of Congress’s business.

Throughout his Executive Branch service, Barr–together with Cheney– has insisted that the President can ignore not only Congressional demands for information, but laws with which he disagrees.

The entire article is worth reading, because it gives needed context to the otherwise inexplicable behavior of William Barr today–behavior that is causing significant morale problems among the professionals at DOJ.

The following paragraphs are representative.

BARR WAS OUT OF GOVERNMENT through the Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama presidencies, but remained a constant presence in rightist legal circles. On June 8, 2018, Barr sent an unsolicited memo to Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general to whom Robert Mueller then reported, and to Steve Engel, who headed the OLC, entitled “Re: Mueller’s ‘Obstruction’ Theory.” Trump’s firing of Jim Comey as director of the FBI could not be obstruction of justice regardless of Trump’s motives, Barr argued, because the president’s power to remove executive branch officials is “illimitable.”….

BARR AND OTHERS ON THE RIGHT have sought relentlessly for four decades to concentrate power in the president and strip power from Congress. Barr’s legal arguments sound haughty and scary to all but the most ardent Trump supporters. But Barr is committed to presidential power with or without legal authority and with or without public support. And he will advance presidential power by any means necessary, which includes frivolous legal arguments and dilatory tactics forbidden by court rules and canons of legal ethics, and false testimony forbidden by criminal law.

I can’t imagine what philosophy of government would lead someone to Barr’s conclusions, but it is abundantly clear that he represents a clear and present danger to the Constitution as it exists, and to the Separation of Powers it clearly requires.

His attacks on separation of church and state are equally dangerous, but that is an issue for another day…