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Attorney General William Barr vociferously attacked Democratic lawmakers and federal judges on Friday and accused them of trying to limit Trump's presidential power.
During a sweeping speech at a conference of The Federalist Society, a conservative legal organization, Barr said Democrats "essentially see themselves as engaged in a war to cripple, by any means necessary, a duly elected government."
Barr's speech drew swift criticism from legal experts, some of whom decried its ideas as "authoritarian" and "dangerous." It come as Trump's use of presidential power faces intense scrutiny. Lawmakers involved in the impeachment inquiry are trying to determine whether the president abused the power of the presidency by seeking to trade military aide to Ukraine for a political favor.
You can watch the speech here:
The attorney general has long been a champion of expansive presidential power, commenting on Friday that he "admires a muscular executive."
Neil Kinkopf, a law professor at Georgia State University, testified at Barr's confirmation hearing earlier this year that he opposed Barr's nomination over concerns about his views on executive authority. Kinkopf saw the speech in person, and said Barr's comments were "all very consistent with everything he's always said."
"But putting it together in the way he did yesterday with the broad sweep, I think it makes it absolutely clear what some of us have always thought — which is that this is a person who holds dangerous views about the scope of presidential power," he added.
Barr described a "resistance" that began as soon as Trump was elected. "The fact of the matter is that in waging a scorched-earth, no holds barred war of resistance against this administration, it is the left that is engaged in the systematic shredding of norms and undermining the rule of law," he said.
The attorney general expressed frustration that Trump has faced obstacles to implementing his policies, despite the fact that many of them were outlined for voters before they went to the polls. "While the president has certainly thrown out the traditional beltway playbook and punctilio, he was upfront about what he was going to do and the people decided they wanted him to serve as president," he said.
Kinkopf said he felt Barr was making "a very dangerous suggestion that dissent and opposition is somehow contrary to democracy — it's in fact the core and spirit of democracy."
Richard Painter, who was the top ethics lawyer for George W. Bush, described the remarks as a "lunatic authoritarian speech."
"While the attorney general is a political appointee of the president, the attorney general needs to maintain a posture of neutrality in ongoing investigations and particularly criminal matters," Painter told NPR.
And yet, Painter said Barr's speech was "extremely partisan, castigating the so-called resistance, characterizing all those who were concerned about the Trump administration as being part of the far left."
Barr said the powers of the executive in the U.S. have been encroached upon for decades by the other branches of government. "This process, I think, has substantially weakened the function of the presidency to the detriment of the nation," he said.
Painter, now a law professor at the University of Minnesota, says he has seen the opposite — an expansion of executive power under Trump and previous presidents, including Bush and Barack Obama. "President Trump has gone further than his predecessors on the policy side," he said.
Kinkopf also viewed Barr's claim as ahistorical. He said that while Congress strongly reasserted its role in the aftermath of Vietnam, presidential power has been steadily expanding for decades since then. "I think since 1981, it's been nothing but an upward line," he said. Claims that Trump's lawyers are making that he should be immune from criminal prosecution, Kinkopf added, are "virtually unprecedented."
Barr also dished out criticism of the federal courts, which have frequently issued injunctions that acted to freeze controversial Trump policies, such as the travel ban that restricted entry into the U.S. for citizens of certain countries.
"It is no exaggeration to say that virtually every major policy of the Trump administration has been subjected to immediate freezing by the lower courts," Barr stated. "No other president has been subjected to such sustained efforts to debilitate his agenda."
The attorney general criticized the courts for considering the president's motives when they assess the legality of a policy, saying this amounts to "attempts by courts to act like amateur psychiatrists."
"Well, if that's right, there is very little in the way of a legal constraint on the president's exercise of his powers," said Kinkopf. For example, if the president was motivated by a bribe to issue a pardon, there would be little mechanism to hold him accountable because it's well within his authority to issue a pardon. "The suggestion that we can't question his motives, that that's somehow improper, cuts to the heart of the rule of law."
He added that Trump is providing, in real time and on Twitter, clear statements about his motivations in a way that other presidents did not. "We have now a president who tweets his motives right in the middle of the night, constantly ... and so what's a court to do now that it has evidence that it never had access to before?"
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