WASHINGTON - Attorney General William Barr on Friday vigorously defended President Donald Trump's use of executive authority and suggested that House Democrats were subverting the will of voters by exploring whether to remove the president from office for abusing his power.
Trump campaigned on a vow to upend Washington, and voters were aware of his agenda when they elected him president, Barr said.
"While the president has certainly thrown out the traditional Beltway playbook and punctilio, he was upfront about what he wanted to do, and the people decided they wanted him to serve as president," Barr said in a speech at a conference hosted by the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group influential in Republican politics.
Trump's opponents "essentially see themselves as engaged in a war to cripple by any means necessary a duly elected government," Barr added.
His forceful defense of the president came after some of Trump's allies have in recent weeks accused Barr of failing to vociferously back the president. Trump was said to be frustrated that Barr urged him to release a reconstructed transcript of the July call with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine at the center of the impeachment case. The president also wanted Barr to hold a news conference to say the president had violated no laws, only to have Barr rebuff the request. Trump has denied that account.
Speaking for an hour at the upscale Mayflower Hotel a few blocks from the White House, Barr hit back at the president's critics on an array of fronts as he argued that Trump, in his capacity as president, has not overstepped his authority.
While Barr never uttered the word impeachment, he castigated those he sees as stalling Trump's agenda. He defended the president's right to set policies, steer the country's diplomatic and military relations and keep executive branch conversations confidential from congressional oversight.
"In waging a scorched-earth, no-holds-barred war against this administration, it is the left that is engaged in shredding norms and undermining the rule of law," Barr said.
He noted that opponents labeled themselves "the resistance" immediately after Trump was elected and accused them of "using every tool and maneuver to sabotage the functioning of the executive branch and his administration."
"Resistance is the language used to describe insurgency against rule imposed by an occupying military power," Barr said. He added that it connotes that the government is not legitimate. "This is a very dangerous and indeed incendiary notion."
Barr spoke as the second public impeachment hearing wrapped up on Capitol Hill, where Democrats have accused Trump of abusing the power of his office for personal gain.
Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine, testified that she was the target of a smear campaign engineered to get Trump to remove her; she was recalled from Kyiv in the spring. She said that her dismissal from the post put national security at risk by opening the door for Russia to further influence Ukraine, a strategic U.S. ally.
She also said that she felt devastated and threatened to learn that Trump had vilified her to Zelenskiy, testimony that Trump underscored by attacking her on Twitter as she sat before lawmakers.
In his address, Barr suggested the president has acted within his powers and that his opponents were willing to bend the law to stop him.
Barr is known as an executive power maximalist and believer in the unitary executive theory, which posits that the Constitution imbues the presidency with broad powers that are subject to relatively little oversight.
He has argued, for example, that Congress cannot make it a crime for a president to exercise executive powers corruptly and that presidents have authority over law enforcement investigations even when investigators are scrutinizing their activity.
On Friday, Barr hit back against criticisms of his view of executive authority.
"Some of you may recall when I was up for confirmation, all these Democratic senators saying how concerned they were about my adherence to the unitary executive theory," Barr said.
"This is not new, and it's not a theory," Barr said, calling his viewpoint a straightforward description of the powers that the Constitution gives the president. "Whatever the executive power may be, those powers must be exercised under the president's supervision," he said.
Barr's assessment was a "highly contestable - and in my view, seriously mistaken - reading of history," said Peter Shane, a former Justice Department official and Ohio State University law professor who specializes in the separation of powers.
"He overreads the vesting of executive power, ignores the limitations on executive power implicit in other clauses, and ignores evidence of what voters in favor of ratification would have expected from the text," Shane said. "He is, indeed, a maximalist."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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