William Barr appears at a ceremony

Then-Attorney General William Barr participates in a ceremony on October 8, 2019. (Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The Lawyers Who Enabled Trump's Assault on Democracy

Their prolonged silence forced the nation to live through the catastrophic consequences of their earlier cowardice.

Former White House counsel Pat Cipollone thinks that Mike Pence should receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom for refusing Trump's demand to commit a felony and subvert a presidential election. That's how low the bar for heroism among Trump administration alumni has sunk.

Lawyers Who Supported a Lawless President

When they entered the legal profession, the attorneys advising Trump swore an oath to uphold the Constitution. Those who took government jobs in his administration swore it again. But many of them facilitated Trump's relentless efforts to undermine the rule of law.

The most notorious members of what former Attorney General William Barr now calls Trump's post-election "clown show" may have been Rudy Giuliani, Sidney Powell, John Eastman, and Jeffrey Clark. But Barr, Cipollone, and others with law degrees - including Pence - helped to create the dangerous creature that roamed the White House on January 6, 2021. Their silence during Trump's second impeachment and the months that followed has allowed that creature to continue haunting the country today.

Belatedly, three key Trump advisers with law degrees have now come forward to reveal the ugly truth about the man they had enabled for years.

Heroes or hypocrites?

William Barr

Barr, one of Trump's most outspoken defenders in his administration, politicized the Justice Department to serve Trump's personal agenda. For example:

  • He kneecapped special counsel Robert Mueller's report by issuing a deceptive and misleading "summary" before it was public. Then he launched an all-out effort to discredit the entire Trump-Russia investigation. Finally, he intervened in cases Mueller had brought - and won - against Trump advisers Roger Stone and Mike Flynn, both of whom became prominent players in the insurrection.
  • For months preceding the 2020 election, Barr sowed doubts about its integrity while admitting that he had no supporting evidence.
  • In the opening sentence of his December 14, 2020 resignation letter - which Trump tweeted immediately - Barr reassured Trump that "the Department's review of voter fraud allegations in the 2020 election... will continue to be pursued."

Barr now says that before he resigned, he told Trump repeatedly that the claims and conspiracy theories about widespread election fraud were "nonsense" and "bullshit." But prior to the insurrection and for months thereafter, he did not reveal that to the public.

Pat Cipollone

Criticizing Trump publicly has been unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory for Pat Cipollone. American taxpayers had paid him to represent the office of the president, not Trump personally. Apparently, he forgot.

  • During Trump's first impeachment trial, Cipollone led the defense legal team and was among those lawyers who, in the service of Trump, lied repeatedly to the Senate and the public.
  • On December 18, 2020, he participated in the "unhinged" Oval Office meeting when Sidney Powell and others urged Trump to seize voting machines and appoint her special counsel to pursue non-existent election fraud.
  • In the infamous Oval Office session on January 3, 2021, he told Trump that Jeffrey Clark's scheme to overturn the election was a "murder-suicide pact."
  • On January 6, Cipollone urged Trump to stop the attack on the U.S. Capitol. He warned that Trump would have blood on his hands, and he was right: Five people died and more than 140 law enforcement officers were injured.

But it took a public shaming by Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) and the riveting testimony of a young staffer, Cassidy Hutchinson, to flush Cipollone out and into the witness chair. Finally - 18 months late - he revealed what he knew about Trump's traitorous misconduct.

Steven Engel

Engel was with Trump from the beginning of his administration. As assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), he flew under the public radar, but his dubious legal opinions provided cover for Trump's flagrant abuses of power.

  • After the House subpoenaed former White House counsel Don McGahn to pursue Mueller's evidence that Trump had obstructed justice, Engel issued an opinion that Congress could not compel McGahn or other Trump advisers to testify - even to confirm what they had already told Mueller. More than two years later - after an appellate court rejected Engel's position - McGahn eventually appeared. By then, no one cared.
  • The inspector general for the intelligence community (IGIC) determined that the whistleblower complaint leading to Trump's first impeachment presented a "credible" matter of "urgent concern" and should be provided to Congress immediately. But Engel issued an opinion permitting Trump to withhold it. His conclusion and underlying legal analysis generated an unprecedented rebuke from the entire inspector general community -- more than 60 IGs throughout the federal government: "[W]e agree with the ICIG that the OLC opinion creates a chilling effect on effective oversight and is wrong as a matter of law and policy."
  • Days after Trump's first impeachment trial in the Senate had begun, Engel issued an opinion defending Trump's stonewalling of every subpoena that three House committees had issued to the executive branch during Congress's Trump-Ukraine investigation. Constitutional scholar Frank O. Bowman III observed that Engel's position was, "to be plain, ridiculous... absolutely daft..." If accepted, "The result is not only to neuter the impeachment power, but more profoundly, to cripple the fundamental check on executive mismanagement, abuse, corruption, and overreach embodied in their own power of oversight."

At the Oval Office meeting on January 3, 2021, acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen and his deputy, Richard Donoghue, told Trump that if he appointed the manifestly unqualified Clark to replace Rosen, they would resign. Engel warned Trump that mass Justice Department resignations - including his own - would follow, and Clark would be "left leading a graveyard."

But for more than a year, Engel said nothing publicly about that meeting.

Blood on Their Hands

While the January 3 Oval Office meeting was underway, the Washington Post broke the story of Trump's tape-recorded call pressuring Georgia election officials the previous day.

"I just want to find 11,780 votes," Trump urged Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.

At that point, Cipollone, Engel, Rosen, and everyone else attending the Sunday night session knew that Trump was proceeding simultaneously on multiple fronts to overturn the election.

But as January 6 approached, they remained silent.

As the House impeached Trump for his role in the insurrection, they remained silent.

As GOP-dominated state legislatures and their Republican governors relied on Trump's Big Lie to adopt draconian voter suppression laws and propose legislation seeking to thwart future popular presidential vote outcomes, they remained silent.

As Trump and his allies rewrote the story of the insurrection so that the armed mob became "peaceful protesters" and the attackers became "tourists," they remained silent.

And as Republican leaders flip-flopped, they remained silent.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) condemned Trump. Now he says he'd vote for him again.

Likewise, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) said that Trump bore responsibility for the attack. Now he has returned to his familiar role as Trump's lackey.

On January 7, 2021, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said, "Count me out... The president needs to understand that his actions were the problem, not the solution. ... It breaks my heart that my friend, a president of consequence, would allow [Jan. 6] to happen, and it will be a major part of his presidency. It was a self-inflicted wound." In September 2021, Graham said that he hoped Trump runs again in 2024.

What If?

If Barr had broken his silence before January 6, would the violent attack on the Capitol even have occurred?

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, if Cipollone, Engel, Rosen, and others had revealed what they knew, would Trump have remained the face of the GOP?

If collective fear hadn't kept all of them quiet for so long, would Trump today be the "clear and present danger to democracy" that former Judge J. Michael Luttig warned?

Late is better than never for Republicans who resisted Trump's attempted coup and have now come forward. But they are not profiles in courage. Their prolonged silence forced the nation to live through the catastrophic consequences of their earlier cowardice.

And those consequences endure.

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