I’m a Republican, but Bill Barr shouldn’t get a pass. He did not stand up and do the right thing.

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As attorney general, he was not the president’s lawyer. His sole client was the United States of America. Now he’s trying to have it both ways to Jan. 6 committee.

Chris Truax
 |  Opinion columnist

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At one of the recent Jan. 6 committee hearings, Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., claimed that former Attorney General Bill Barr and others “stood up and did what is right.”

As a longtime Republican, I’m proud of the principled stand Cheney has taken. But when it comes to Barr, she could not be more wrong.

I’ve had an unusual reaction to the House hearings so far, an uncomfortable mixture of embarrassment and disgust. Of course, I am relieved that the Trump administration had devolved into the gang that couldn’t coup straight. But I’m also embarrassed by former President Donald Trump’s cringeworthy collection of cowards, clowns and traitors.

My disgust, however, has a specific focus: William Barr, as attorney general of the United States, could have helped to stop the Big Lie and discredit Trump’s claim that the election was stolen. 

Attorney general was not Donald Trump’s lawyer

Barr is intelligent, rational and a good lawyer. And as attorney general, he was not the president’s lawyer. His sole client was the United States of America. He took an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic” and to “bear true faith and allegiance to the same.”

Support and defend doesn’t mean run away. You can’t fulfill your oath by withdrawing from the fight when the Constitution is most threatened. So instead of telling Trump that his election fraud claims were “bull—-” and “idiotic,” – as Barr admitted he did in his testimony before the committee – he should have been telling the entire country.

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What did Barr do instead? Here’s the first paragraph from the attorney general’s resignation letter dated Dec. 14, 2020:

“I appreciate the opportunity to update you this afternoon on the (Justice) Department’s review of voter fraud allegations in the 2020 election and how these allegations will continue to be pursued. At a time when the country is so deeply divided, it is incumbent on all levels of government, and all agencies acting within their purview, to do all we can to assure the integrity of elections and promote public confidence in their outcome.”

Barr is just saving his own skin 

Notably absent from Barr’s last public statement on Trump’s attack on the 2020 election results are the words “bull—-” and “idiotic.” He isn’t upholding his oath. He’s saving his own skin and removing himself from a no-win situation.

Two weeks before he resigned, the attorney general told The Associated Press, “To date, we have not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election.”

In that interview, Barr also announced he had appointed a special counsel to investigate the origins of the Trump-Russian collusion investigation.

This is not the work of an attorney general defending the Constitution. It’s the work of a self-serving bureaucrat papering the file.

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If Barr had wanted to uphold his oath, there were role models he could have followed. 

Two weeks before that Barr interview, Christopher Krebs, the director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and the country’s top election security official, was fired for defending the conduct of the election. Just hours before he was terminated on Nov. 17, 2020 – in a tweet by Trump himself – Krebs tweeted out a report by 59 election security experts concluding there was no credible evidence that computer fraud affected the election outcome.

What if, instead of providing cover for Trump’s “idiotic” election fraud claims in his resignation letter, Barr had lived up to his oath and defied Trump as his predecessor, Jeff Sessions, had done?

Suppose that, instead of resigning quietly “to spend the holidays with his family,” as Trump tweeted, Barr had held a prime-time news conference denouncing Trump’s efforts to overturn the election. It might have gotten him fired, at which point he could have become a constant media presence tirelessly explaining that the Department of Justice had thoroughly investigated Trump’s claims and that there was nothing to them.

How would Jan. 6, 2021, have played out then?

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Am I being too harsh on Barr? Perhaps. But Barr is the archetype for every Republican politician and every administration official who decided to go along to get along rather than publicly fight for what they knew was right. Maybe one Bill Barr could not have stopped the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. But a hundred Bill Barrs, Liz Cheneys, Adam Kinzingers and Brad Raffenspergers – publicly declaring what we now know that Barr and almost everyone else in the administration privately admitted – would have.

But at the height of the effort to set aside the 2020 election, the attorney general chose to do nothing. As Cheney herself tweeted, “We take an Oath to defend the United States Constitution. That Oath must mean something.”

Let’s not mince words. Bill Barr did not stand up to do the right thing. Instead, Barr tried to have it both ways. It should earn him nothing but contempt.

Chris Truax, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, is an appellate lawyer in San Diego and a member of The Guardrails of Democracy Project.

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