Attorney General William Barr isn’t letting the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic get in the way of ongoing investigations at the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). And, he’s even ordering his staff to keep traveling for such inquiries–despite repeat advice from public health authorities to flatten the curve by staying indoors.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Barr is heavily pressing forward with the DOJ’s antitrust probe of internet search, ad-seller, marketplace and data-collection giant Google. In fact, he appears to have ramped up the timeline for potential completion.
“I’m hoping that we bring it to fruition early summer,” Barr told reporter Sadie Gurman. “And by fruition I mean, decision time.”
The Journal‘s legal affairs reporter Brent Kendall noted via Twitter: “That’s a shorter timeline than he’s outlined previously in public.”
But accommodating such an accelerated timeline in the time of the Coronavirus necessarily requires federal employees to make decisions that go largely against the grain of advice being offered during the unprecedented nationwide public health emergency.
While individual public health experts like epidemiologists and infectious disease scientists have broadly cautioned people to only travel short distances as a last resort or out of necessity, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) aren’t really in the business of making such recommendations. But even the CDC, in the moment, has more or less been telling Americans that travel is generally a bad idea.
“CDC does not generally issue advisories or restrictions for travel within the United States,” the agency’s website notes. “However, cases of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) have been reported in many states, and some areas are experiencing community spread of the disease. Crowded travel settings, like airports, may increase chances of getting COVID-19, if there are other travelers with coronavirus infection.”
Obviously, airports are hotspots for transmission–and airplanes are metallic cylinders that recycle air; making them prime breeding grounds for spread of the contagion. Amidst this backdrop, Barr has instructed his people to keep moving. Per the Journal‘s report:
Meanwhile Mr. Barr is forging ahead with his priorities, he said. He instructed U.S. attorneys on Friday to tell their state and local counterparts that federal employees must be allowed to travel and commute for law enforcement work even in places with restrictions.
Response to Barr’s mandate was mixed.
National security attorney Bradley P. Moss, a typical critic of the administration, advised something akin to a trust-but-verify stance in this instance.
“The maintenance of law and order, even in a reduced capacity, is essential during a pandemic, so I can understand what the Attorney General is attempting to do here,” he told Law&Crime via email. “The goal of the DOJ should remain conveying to the public that law enforcement is not abandoning them at this moment of acute vulnerability.”
“It seems reckless and irresponsible,” law and policy expert Esha Krishnaswamy said in a message–expressing concern that immigration enforcement in particular might be stepped up amidst the ongoing national crisis. “This is worrying for all of us.”
Former federal prosecutor and current Westchester District Attorney candidate Mimi Rocah was of two minds about the news.
“[O]f course the DOJ needs to keep functioning. It is essential,” she said via email. “To the extent [Barr is] facilitating that, that’s appropriate. The same thing happened when I was [an assistant U.S. Attorney] after 9/11. If he’s pushing people to carry on with cases as if nothing was wrong and risking further spread–especially on non pressing cases–that would obviously be malpractice.”
Barr’s overtures and demands at the present time are still likely to be viewed askance–especially in light of his recent request for the ability to indefinitely detain American citizens without charges or trial under a suite of proposed controversial emergency powers because of the pandemic and resulting panic.
Barr himself justified his latest power grab in his Monday interview with the Journal. He said: “When something is unanticipated, you can’t write the rules ahead of time to deal with it. It comes along, you need some person making decisions necessary to prevent catastrophe.”
Others have said the 77th and 85th attorney general’s “overtures to consolidate power” are cause for concern.
“We should be rightfully concerned about Barr’s overtures to consolidate power throughout the COVID-19 pandemic,” Angelo Guisado, a staff attorney focused on Civil Rights with the Center for Constitutional Rights told Law&Crime.
“Time and again when the nation faces unprecedented crisis, the federal government leans in toward authoritarianism: whether it was Japanese internment during WWII, invasive covert efforts to disrupt social movements during the Cold War, or the creation of the mass surveillance state and endless war machine post-9/11, the government shows that when given an inch it will take a mile.”
[image via BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images]
Editor’s note: this story has been amended post-publication to include additional responses.