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EDITORIAL

A new low for William Barr

The attorney general, doing the president’s bidding and delivering a win to Russia, does not belong in the Justice Department. And the Trump White House should be held accountable for attacking the rule of law.

Attorney General William Barr
Attorney General William BarrAlex Brandon/Associated Press

Former national security adviser Michael Flynn admitted to serious crimes and betrayed the interests of the nation. Anyone who wants to let Flynn — a corrupt crony of the president who never should have been entrusted to defend American security — walk free now has no business being attorney general of the United States.

William Barr, who has been doing the bidding of the president since he was confirmed as attorney general in February 2019, has shown no desire to uphold the Justice Department’s role as an independent defender of the rule of law. That much was already clear before Thursday’s disgraceful decision by the DOJ to seek the dismissal of criminal charges against Flynn. But bowing to political pressure to let Michael Flynn walk free after he pleaded guilty to charges ought to be the last straw. If Barr cared about his personal integrity, he’d resign. If the Republican-controlled Senate cared about the rule of law, GOP senators would insist on it.

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And if they don’t — well, at least Americans now can’t have any illusions about what’s at stake in the November election. Generations of Americans worked to build an independent Justice Department, part of the commitment to the even-handed rule of law. It has set the United States apart and made it the envy of the world. If Americans want to pass that inheritance on to the next generation, this administration and its utter contempt for impartial justice must go.

Flynn, a retired Army general, served as Trump’s first national security adviser. He was interviewed by FBI agents in January 2017 during the bureau’s investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and lied about his contacts with Russian officials. That’s a crime under any circumstance, and an especially grave one for a high-ranking official in a national security investigation. Flynn admitted to his actions, which included secretly advising the Russian ambassador about American foreign policy, and twice affirmed his guilty plea; he then cooperated with the FBI investigation. The plea deal only scratched the surface of Flynn’s alleged wrongdoing; he also concealed his work as an unregistered foreign agent for Turkey. With the inquiry concluded, he was due to be sentenced in federal court.

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President Trump fired Flynn “because he lied to the Vice President and the FBI” — though he insisted all along that Flynn had done nothing illegal and repeatedly hinted that he planned to pardon him. To the president and his defenders, the whole Russia investigation was a sham. They are entitled to that opinion, even if it is contrary to the facts discovered by US intelligence agencies that confirmed Russian interference in the election and by the findings of the Mueller report. No amount of White House officials nattering on Fox News, however, should have moved an independent Justice Department. Yet Barr took the hint, and his prosecutors produced a laughable pretext for dropping the case on Thursday, saying the government now doubted the initial interview “was conducted with a legitimate investigative basis.” The judge doesn’t have to grant the request to dismiss the charges, and ought to give careful thought to rejecting it. But if the Justice Department’s reversal does end the case, it means Flynn will have lied to the FBI without consequence and the Russian regime delivered a win — a clear sign that there is no accountability for interference in our elections.

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With a handful of exceptions, previous administrations have not operated with such brazen disregard for legal norms or with such transparent political favoritism — even though they could have. Presidents do control the executive branch, including the Justice Department, and they do have unlimited pardon powers. But past presidents — either out of principle and respect for the rule of law, fear of triggering resignations, fear of impeachment, or because they feared for their own reelection — generally chose not to abuse their presidential authority by bending federal prosecutors to their whims.

Trump apparently has no such principles, and he has found an attorney general willing to accede to his wishes; meanwhile, the Republican Senate has shown itself, through its impeachment acquittal, unwilling to uphold norms checking presidential power. Ultimately, then, it falls to American voters to decide whether they still care enough about those principles to punish a politician who violates them repeatedly and flagrantly. Is the way Michael Flynn got out of jail the way that Americans want the Justice Department to operate? Should connections and political favoritism influence who is charged and who walks free? It’s a question that must be asked in the upcoming election, because Americans will keep the rule of law only if they insist on it at the ballot box.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.