ABC News is reporting that Attorney General William Barr has removed Brad Wiegmann from his role as deputy assistant attorney general for national security, the Department of Justice’s top national security policy position—a role that Wiegmann has held as a career official for more than a decade. Wiegmann’s replacement is reported to be Kellen Dwyer, a 36-year-old cybercrime prosecutor with no policy experience who will be in the role as a political, rather than career, appointee. This decision not only removes from Justice Department leadership one of its best national security experts but also sends a message that, in Barr’s Justice Department, political loyalty and malleability—not expertise—matter most.
I am the furthest thing from an unbiased observer. I was an attorney in the Office of Law and Policy, which Brad headed, for two and a half years, at the end of the Obama administration and in the first few months of the Trump administration. I worked closely with Brad and thought of him as both a mentor and a friend. He led the office through its most difficult moments, from the 2013 Snowden leaks to the Russia investigation, and he was (and I’m sure will continue to be) the ideal public servant: always the smartest person in the room, completely apolitical and adored by his colleagues.
Besides being a cruel end to a long and distinguished tenure, Brad’s removal continues a worrying trend at the Justice Department and in the administration more broadly. Most obvious is the administration’s distrust of career civil servants. When I served in the National Security Division, the division took great pride that, in contrast to other Justice Department divisions, its only political appointee was the assistant attorney general; both the principal deputy and the four deputy assistant attorney generals were career officials. The message was clear: National security and foreign intelligence were so sensitive that it was important to insulate all but the president’s personal appointee from political interference.
One can certainly argue that, if any deputy assistant attorney general should be a political appointee, it should be the person in charge of law and policy. After all, this is the official who interacts most often with the National Security Council and helps to set the administration’s national security policy. Indeed, when the National Security Division was first created, Brad’s position was headed by a political appointee, John Demers, who currently heads the division.
Nevertheless, it is an odd time to inject yet more politics into one of the most sensitive roles at the Justice Department—a role that not only steers surveillance policy but also provides independent advice as to the legality of the government’s national security and foreign intelligence operations. In principle, this could be accomplished by a political appointee, as has been the case in the past, but a career official will always have more leverage to say no when it matters. And now—two months before a highly polarized presidential election marked by concerns over foreign interference and the president’s campaign to discredit the voting process—is precisely the time when the department should want a career official in this role. Furthermore, given Barr’s repeated failure to apolitically discharge the responsibilities of attorney general, the abrupt shift from a career official to a political position raises serious questions about Barr’s motivations.
These questions are made more concerning given who the replacement is and the message his promotion sends about the value of loyalty over expertise. I have nothing against Kellen Dwyer. People I know who have worked with him speak highly of him, both personally and professionally. Although he’s best known for an embarrassing mistake in which he accidentally revealed that Julian Assange had been federally charged, mistakes happen (I certainly made my fair share of them while serving in government) and shouldn’t derail an otherwise promising career. And the fact that Dwyer worked on the Assange investigation shows that his colleagues at the Eastern District of Virginia thought highly enough of him to entrust him with this sensitive case.
But there’s no way that Dwyer, who has worked as a prosecutor since 2014 and appears to have no policy experience, is qualified to be deputy assistant attorney general. The position not only would put him in charge of the department’s national security policy, legal and appellate work, but also would make him a key liaison between the department and Congress. In normal times, Dwyer’s resume would make him an excellent candidate for a staff role in the office or perhaps as a counselor to the assistant attorney general. But it makes no sense to appoint someone with no policy background as the federal government’s chief national security legal policy strategist.
If Barr wants to mentor and advance the career of a young, promising conservative lawyer, that’s fine. But using the deputy assistant attorney general position to do so is completely inappropriate. Worse, it raises suspicions that Barr has picked someone whose inexperience and reliance on Barr’s patronage will make it difficult for him to show independence and say no to power.
However dispiriting the news is, it’s not particularly surprising. Barr, after all, recently tried to replace the administration’s own hand-picked U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York—the highest-profile prosecutorial position in the federal government—with someone whose only prosecutorial experience had been as a law school intern. And more generally, Dwyer’s elevation is of a piece with the tendency in the Trump administration to undermine the deep pockets of expertise throughout the federal government. Contemptuous of experience and competence, the administration prizes loyalty above all else.
In a perverse way, this has sometimes worked to limit the administration’s capacity to do damage: Its malevolence is tempered by its incompetence. But incompetence in the federal government is hardly something to celebrate.
Fortunately, competence has a way of reasserting itself. Brad will hopefully remain as a senior adviser at the National Security Division, and Dwyer would do well to keep his counsel. And if Trump loses in November, the new attorney general will have the perfect candidate to return to a role that, for so long, he ably discharged.