President Trump famously asked, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” Demanding a stand-in for his old personal lawyer and fixer, Mr. Trump has actually gotten something better with Bill Barr: a lawyer who like Cohn stops seemingly at nothing in his service to Mr. Trump and conveniently sits atop the nation’s Justice Department.
Mr. Barr has acted more like a henchman than the leader of an agency charged with exercising independent judgment. The disturbing message that sends does not end at our borders — it extends to countries, like those in the former East Bloc, struggling to overcome an illiberal turn in the direction of autocracy.
When Mr. Trump sought to have President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine announce an investigation of his political opponent, he likely expected a positive response. After all, politicized prosecutions had been part of Ukraine’s corrupt political culture for years.
On Monday, when Michael Horowitz, inspector general for the Justice Department, released a report that affirmed the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election was justified, Mr. Barr immediately turned on his own agency in defense of the president.
“The F.B.I. launched an intrusive investigation of a U.S. presidential campaign on the thinnest of suspicions that, in my view, were insufficient to justify the steps taken,” he said.
Similarly, Mr. Barr’s response to the report from Robert Mueller on Russian interference and Mr. Trump’s purported presidential misconduct was to cast doubt on his own staff, questioning their work product as well as their ethics and legal reasoning. Even before he became attorney general, Mr. Barr questioned Mr. Mueller’s investigation of the president for obstruction of justice in a 19-page legal memo he volunteered to the administration.
And where he could have neutrally passed Mr. Mueller’s findings to Congress, he instead took the widely criticized and unusual step of making and announcing his own legal conclusions about Mr. Mueller’s obstruction inquiry. He followed up this Cohn-like behavior with testimony in the Senate, where he insinuated that the United States government spied on the Trump campaign. Mr. Barr apparently has decided that, like Cohn, he serves Donald Trump and not the Constitution or the United States, flouting his oath of office and corrupting the mission of the Justice Department.
In the past, the United States has, however imperfectly, advanced the rule of law and supported governments committed to an anti-corruption agenda. According to George Kent, a State Department official who testified in the House impeachment inquiry, Russia sees corruption as a tool to advance its interests. So when the United States fights a kleptocratic culture, it serves not only lofty humanitarian goals but also our national security. Mr. Zelensky ran a campaign and was elected on a platform that put fighting corruption at the forefront. He should have received extensive and unmitigated support in that effort.
In the former East Bloc countries, despite the hopes of many for a post-Soviet era where democracy would thrive, the parties and politicians in power have consolidated their control in a manner reminiscent of the Communist era.
Autocrats understand that supposedly independent institutions such as the courts and prosecutors are vital to locking in their power. In Romania, a crusading anti-corruption prosecutor who was investigating top government officials was fired at the same time as the government advanced legislation to cabin the ability of other prosecutors to pursue cases against political officials. Poland’s right-wing populist Law and Justice Party has attacked the independent judiciary and has sought to remove judges who do not follow the party line. Hungary has followed suit. Bulgarian politicians have persecuted civil society groups that have criticized their abandonment of the rule of law.
While several United States ambassadors have attempted to support anti-corruption efforts in the region, they have been continuously undercut by the White House. In addition to firing Marie Yovanovitch, who served as ambassador to Ukraine, in part because of her anti-corruption focus, Mr. Trump hosted Viktor Orban of Hungary in Washington over the objections of national security officials who did not want to elevate a corrupt leader with close ties to the Kremlin; furthermore, the president has tried to cut funding for anti-corruption programs.
Mr. Trump’s focus on cultivating foreign leaders who can help his re-election has overwhelmed our national interests in the region. That is certainly a shame for the anti-corruption activists in former Communist countries who have depended on our help and leadership since the end of the Soviet era and who have seen their justice system turned to serve political ends.
But for Americans, we must worry that we face a similar domestic situation: a prosecutor who bends to the political needs of the president. Mr. Trump may no longer be able to call on Roy Cohn, but he now has a stronger ally in the United States’ top law-enforcement official, who thinks that if the president does it, it can’t be wrong.