Is the attorney general the president's personal lawyer?
Recently, the Justice Department moved to replace President Trump's private legal team with government lawyers in order to defend him against a defamation lawsuit by the author E. Jean Carroll, who has accused him of raping her in the 1990s. In a highly unusual move, the Justice Department argues that Trump was acting in his official capacity as president when he denied ever knowing Ms. Carroll, and as such, government attorneys should assume Trump's defense.
Should the Justice Department be defending a president accused of lying about a rape that is alleged to have occurred before he was president?
At his confirmation hearings, Attorney General William Barr pledged to act independently. Yet Barr has consistently advocated that the attorney general should vigorously defend the president "by advancing all colorable arguments that can mustered in support." How can the U.S. attorney general act independently while also serving as the president's personal protector?
Notably, our nation's founders originally placed the attorney general's office within the judicial branch — not the executive branch. It wasn't until 1870 that the position moved to executive branch, thereby losing much of its independence. An unfortunate consequence of our current arrangement is that presidents strangely oversee the office that oversees whether presidential actions are legal.
Making the attorney general an executive officer subordinate to the president incentivizes attorneys general to act in pursuit of the president's political agenda, rather than solely in accordance with the rule of law. This can be problematic, as I have found that abuse of power is comparatively more common in countries where the president and the attorney general are political allies.
Now that Barr is leveraging government lawyers to defend Trump the president in a defamation lawsuit against Trump the private citizen, taxpayers are effectively bankrolling Trump's defense. Furthermore, taxpayers will be on the hook for any damages that could be awarded.
It's no secret that Trump loves to litigate — I just wish I didn't have to pay for it.