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OPINION

The rule of law isn’t under threat — it’s under assault

The list is endless. Trump and Barr have no limits.

President Trump is joined by Attorney General William Barr at a meeting in the White House in September.
President Trump is joined by Attorney General William Barr at a meeting in the White House in September.Oliver Contreras/NYT

A few days ago, I joined 19 other former US attorneys who served under Republican presidents to state that we could not support the reelection of Donald Trump. One line said it all: “President Trump’s leadership is a threat to the rule of law in our country.”

Frankly, as often happens when 20 lawyers collaborate, that line is understated. I would say the rule of law is under assault by Trump and Attorney General Bill Barr. We’re way beyond the threat phase.

The bedrock principle by which the Department of Justice and its more than 100,000 attorneys, investigators, and staff are guided is simple: Ensure that the laws of the United States are enforced faithfully and impartially.

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Nowhere in the oath each of those attorneys — career or political appointee — takes does it say anything about serving the president. It is entirely and exclusively about serving the American people and the Constitution. The rule of law.

Yet, just this week, US District Court Judge Lewis Kaplan had to tell the Justice Department that it could not represent Trump in a personal libel suit stemming from the president’s comments about an alleged rape by Trump that occurred more than 20 years ago.

Kaplan wrote: “President Trump’s views on the plaintiff’s sexual assault allegation may be interesting to some, but they reveal nothing about the operation of government.”

The fact that a federal judge even had to make such a ruling is disgusting. Almost four years into his term, Trump still cannot grasp the simple notion that the Justice Department is not a law firm that exists to serve his every need and desire. While that may not be shocking from a president who views the executive branch as just another Trump Organization enterprise, the fact that his attorney general plays along is of grave concern.

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Barr has long espoused an expansive view of executive power. Reasonable people can debate those limits or lack thereof. But a debate about a president’s authorities can be reasonable only if premised upon an acceptance of the Constitution and the rule of law it establishes.

Trump and Barr recognize no such limits.

The list is endless: After Congress refused for years to appropriate funds for a magical border wall, Trump simply took billions of dollars appropriated for other purposes and started building it. Countless times, Trump’s political appointees have ignored — or proudly defied — congressional requests and subpoenas issued under clear constitutional authority. He holds campaign rallies on the White House lawn in obnoxious violation of not just the law but also time-honored norms. And despite obvious prohibitions dating back to the Founding Fathers’ greatest fears about a chief executive, Trump has used both his position and our tax dollars to enrich himself, his businesses, and his family.

At every step, Trump has demanded that the Justice Department go along with his schemes. Many conscientious attorneys at the department have resigned rather than do so, and others have been subjected to his dreaded Twitter abuse. Some have been drummed from their positions. Sadly, rather than push back against Trump’s excesses or even attempt to protect the integrity of the department he leads, Barr is an eager accomplice — something that is inexplicable to those of us who know him.

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Having served as not only a US attorney, but also as assistant US attorney general for the criminal division under President Reagan, I know a little about the traditions, culture, and make-up of the Justice Department. In fact, I ultimately found it necessary to resign rather than accept the actions of then-Attorney General Edwin Meese, who too often reflexively mixed law enforcement and politics. I can sympathize with those who have similarly departed the Justice Department under Trump and Barr.

But this I know: The wounds inflicted upon the Department of Justice by this administration can be quickly healed with new leadership. Those thousands of career attorneys all across the nation — most of whom have been quietly going about their duty to the rule of law throughout the Trump nightmare — will continue to do their jobs, and with a president and an attorney general who actually respect the Constitution, they will easily move past the abuses of late and restore the Department of Justice to what it is intended to be.

Bill Weld is the former governor of Massachusetts. He also served as a US attorney for Massachusetts and an assistant US attorney general for the criminal division of the Department of Justice under President Ronald Reagan.