Marshall Tanick's letter rebutting critics of Attorney General William Barr's role around the Mueller report ("Curb myths about Barr's role," May 21) misses the mark in at least two respects: first, he misstates the criticism that he is rebutting; and second, he presents a misleading picture of the attorney general's role.
Tanick writes that Barr's critics' "lamentation that Barr is serving as defense counsel for the president, rather than acting as 'The People's Lawyer,' is either the height of naiveté or a misunderstanding of the federal government system."
That anyone thinks that the U.S. attorney general should be "the people's lawyer" is news to me. But the attorney general certainly is an officer of the United States and takes an oath not to the president but "to support and defend the Constitution of the United States" and to "well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office." The real criticism of Barr is that he seems to be confused about his role.
The attorney general is not "defense counsel for the president," and does not "represent [the president] in legal proceedings," as Tanick writes. If the president needs representation for his personal or business interests, he hires a private lawyer at his own expense, as most presidents in modern times have done. If the president needs counsel in his official capacity, then he turns to the Office of Counsel to the President, established in 1943 and more commonly known as the White House counsel, who advises him at public expense about his public role — but not about his interests as a candidate or the leader of a political party, let alone about his personal or business interests.
And if the president's administration appears before the Supreme Court, it is represented by the solicitor general, who presents the administration's official position about the law.
None of those roles is played by the attorney general. The attorney general did often appear in court through much of the 19th century, but has not done so regularly since 1870 when Congress established the Department of Justice and the office of solicitor general.
Tanick also writes that the attorney general "is a political appointee of the president" and "serves at [the president's] pleasure." Those facts are equally true of the FBI director and every U.S. attorney, who also serve within the Justice Department that the attorney general heads. But nobody (well, almost nobody) would argue that, as a result, they should investigate or prosecute the president's political opponents just because the president wants them to.
The same is true of the IRS commissioner, who shouldn't be arranging audits of the president's opponents; and of the secretary of defense, who can't make decisions about deploying troops based on how foreign countries treat the president's or his family's business interests.
There is a form of government that doesn't distinguish between the head of state's public role and his or her personal interests, but this nation fought a revolution to win its independence from that way of running things.
In our constitutional republic, there is a line between the public and the personal, and public officers and employees need to keep their official roles on the "public" side of that line.
Barr can be legitimately criticized when he forgets or blurs that line. You may agree or disagree that he has done so, but nothing in Tanick's letter undermines the criticism from those who believe that he has.
Brian Melendez is a Minneapolis attorney, a former president of the Minnesota State Bar Association and a former chair of the Minnesota DFL.