“How can you tell when a lawyer is lying?” the old joke begins. The answer: “Whenever his lips are moving.”The humor reflects the reality of how an average citizen views the legal profession. It's seen as mendacious and amoral. Of course, the reality is different. While not every lawyer can be an Atticus Finch defending the innocent, most are hardworking and honest.And then there is the attorney general, William Barr, who is scheduled to testify Tuesday before the House Judiciary Committee under threat of subpoena. His lack of honesty and ethics is the basis for a complaint filed last week by 27 prominent lawyers, who are seeking to have Barr’s license to practice law revoked.All lawyers are bound to follow the ethical rules adopted by the State Bar Association where they are licensed to practice law. These rules are part of the profession’s effort to regulate itself and prevent bad lawyers from practicing law.
According to the complaint, Attorney General Barr has violated the Washington, D.C., rules and engaged in unethical conduct. It says he has been dishonest and deceitful, and has also interfered with the administration of justice. Barr, of course, is not just any lawyer — he is the most important public lawyer in America. If anything, ethical violations by a lawyer holding a public office should be viewed as more egregious because the violations betray the public trust attached to the office.How has Barr been dishonest and unethical? The complaint makes four powerful and deeply detailed allegations. Fundamentally, Barr breached his duty to the American people by advancing the interests of the president over those of the nation. He did so by systematically engaging in deceitful and misleading dishonesty:
►First, Barr lied publicly about the contents of the Mueller report. Rule 8.4(c) of the Washington Rules of Professional Conduct defines an ethical violation as any time a lawyer “engage(s) in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation.” The D.C. courts have said that dishonesty “encompasses fraudulent, deceitful, or misrepresentative behavior,” and that it also includes a lack of "probity ... integrity ... fairness and straightforwardness”; statements that are “technically true” but fail to state the whole truth qualify as “conduct ... of a dishonest character.”
In multiple statements and press appearances, Barr said the report absolved the president of criminal liability for obstructing justice. We now know, of course, that it did no such thing and that, as over 1,000 prosecutors have said, the evidence of the president’s criminality was substantial. Being dishonest with the public in this way is unethical, deceitful conduct.
A blackened reputation:Barr was once widely respected. Thanks to Trump, not anymore.
►Second, Barr was publicly dishonest in attacking a report issued by the Department of Justice inspector general. In his unprecedented December attack on the IG, the attorney general wildly misrepresented the report’s determination that the FBI had a proper basis for launching its 2016 counterintelligence investigation.
In doing so, he purposefully left out crucial evidence on which the IG relied. In this way, Barr acted to advance Trump’s narrative that the FBI’s investigation into his campaign was illegitimate and put that interest ahead of his obligations to the truth.
►Third, Barr unethically abandoned the rules of the department (and the ethics rules of the District of Columbia) by publicly maligning the conduct of FBI agents who are the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation. Recall that President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey for the same offense — commenting on an open criminal investigation.
In commenting publicly, Barr undermined the fairness of future criminal proceedings involving those individuals, thereby engaging “in conduct that seriously interferes with the administration of justice.”
►Finally, and most notably, Barr oversaw and ordered the unconstitutional assault on citizens peacefully protesting in Lafayette Square. By doing so, Barr unethically advanced Trump’s personal interests in a “photo op” rather than carrying out his ethical duty to represent the people of the United States and protect their fundamental interest in their constitutional rights.
As nothing more than an ethics complaint, this litany of misconduct allegations is shocking in the extreme. But it is more than just an ethics complaint against the nation’s top lawyer. It is also a warning — a detailed, painstakingly well-documented warning that, at bottom, Barr is fundamentally mendacious. It is a warning that over the next six months, whenever Barr speaks, we should be skeptical that what he says is truthful.Remember this warning if Barr claims to have uncovered a criminal conspiracy connected to the 2016 Russia investigation.Remember it if he says sending Homeland Security officers into major American cities to protect against anarchists is legally justified.Remember it if he claims that the Constitution allows the Census Bureau to refuse to count people who are illegally in the United States.Remember it if he says voting by mail is rife with fraud.Remember it if he claims that the results of the next election are illegitimate and that Trump has really won reelection.Remember this warning because it isn’t a joke. Remember it whenever Bill Barr’s lips are moving.Paul Rosenzweig, a senior fellow in the National Security and Cyber Security Program at the R Street Institute, was senior counsel to Kenneth Starr in the Whitewater investigation and a deputy assistant secretary of Homeland Security in the George W. Bush administration.
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