NPR’s Michel Martin speaks with David Rohde, executive editor of The New Yorker, about Attorney General William Barr’s views on the role of the president in preserving law and order.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Today, activists around the country planned demonstrations against President Trump’s decision to send federal law enforcement officers to several major cities. This week, President Trump announced he is expanding Operation Legend, as it’s known, to combat what he says is a rise in violent crime.
During remarks, he said, crime in these selected cities, all led by Democrats, is so bad that the federal government has, quote, “no choice but to get involved” – unquote. While law enforcement should be a local issue, he added, quote, “in the meantime, we will use federal law enforcement to vigorously charge federal crimes to the greatest extent possible” – this despite criticism and lawsuits from state and local officials.
But the president could not do this on his own. That’s why we wanted to examine the role of another central figure in all this – U.S. Attorney General William Barr, who critics say is acting more like the president’s personal lawyer than the country’s top law enforcement official. Journalist David Rohde profiled Attorney General Barr in The New Yorker earlier this year, and he’s with us now.
David Rohde, thanks so much for joining us.
DAVID ROHDE: Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: So in your profile, you wrote about the relationship between President Trump and Attorney General Barr. And you wrote that, quote, “what the two men have in common is a sense of being surrounded by a hostile insurgency. Both men combine the pro-business instincts of traditional Republicans with a focus on culture clash and grievance, and both believe that any constraint on presidential power weakens the United States.” And you called Attorney General Barr the president’s sword and shield.
So could you just talk a little bit more about that? And could you talk about how this relationship plays into what we are seeing now?
ROHDE: It’s really an agreement – sort of almost a relationship of convenience. Barr throughout his career for decades has supported a much stronger presidency. He feels that the presidency was weakened after Watergate, and you need the president to do things like deploy federal law enforcement agents into cities, as is happening now. And I’ll just add that that’s a very, very extreme interpretation of presidential power. Most scholars think this is really unusual what’s happening today.
MARTIN: Well, could you just talk about their – the stated rationale for Operation Legend – which is, by the way, named for a child who was killed in Kansas City recently – that there’s been a rise in violent crime, and the federal government needs to step in. He said, quote, “our response to this increase in violent crime is to step up the activity of our task forces in hard-hit cities by committing more federal agents and supporting more state and local task force officers.” Well, when he’s referring to violent crime, what is he talking about?
ROHDE: What is happening is that Barr and Trump are following an old playbook. There is an increase in crime. There is a problem. They’re vastly exaggerating it to achieve a political goal. As the campaign approaches, and with President Trump lagging in the polls, you know, as you mentioned, he’s playing up a fear of chaos in the country, and he’s going to be the law-and-order president.
And this is all part of Barr’s belief – he gave a speech last fall – that the presidency should be more powerful than the other branches of government, and it’s the presidency that saves the country, if you look at American history, from economic calamity, national security threats and moments like this. And just to repeat, that is a very, very extreme and unusual interpretation of the balance of powers. Most people think the three branches should be equal.
MARTIN: I do, though, want to ask more about this issue around using federal officers to quell street protests. He says it’s to quell violent crime. Some of these protests have been violent, but by no means all. So is the question is, does he have a distaste for street protests writ large? Does he find them – like, what is the issue here?
Because the fact is, there are people who find these protests distasteful. They don’t like the graffiti. But graffiti isn’t violent crime. Graffitiing a federal building might be offensive, but that is not in its – on its face a violent act. So I guess what I’m asking you is, is what is it that really seems to disturb him?
ROHDE: He believes that crime is carried out due to people’s moral failures, not due to poverty. He believes that very harsh sentences curbs crime. He’s believed this throughout his career. He was in the meeting between President Trump and the governors where President Trump talked about dominating the streets.
Barr used that exact same language. So he thinks massive force which he directed outside the White House and across D.C., the use of federal agents which we saw there, is the way to restore order. So this is not new, and I think we’ll see more and more of this aggressive federal action around the country between now and the election.
MARTIN: And to that point with William Barr, the criticism of William Barr is that he’s allowing himself and federal law enforcement and the Department of Justice to be used as an agent of the president’s political agenda. And has he ever responded to that?
ROHDE: He has not answered that question well, and you’ve hit on the core problem and danger here. J. Edgar Hoover misused the FBI to investigate Martin Luther King and Vietnam protesters and the John Birch Society on the right. Massive reforms enacted in the ’70s were supposed to depoliticize the attorney general and the FBI and law enforcement in general.
What’s happening now is incredibly dangerous. Over and over again, Bill Barr is using his powers to help the president politically. That undermines Americans’ already incredibly low faith in law enforcement and equal justice under law in this country. And that’s what’s so frightening. We thought we had exorcized this decades ago. We obviously never did exorcize it in terms of race. But he is showing over and over again, if you are the president’s friend or political ally, you will be treated better than if you’re the president’s political enemy.
MARTIN: That’s David Rohde, executive editor for news at the newyorker.com and author of “In Deep: The FBI, The CIA, And The Truth About America’s Deep State.”
David Rohde, thank you so much for talking with us today.
ROHDE: Thank you, Michel.
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