The jig is up. Anyone holding out hope that Attorney General William Barr was somehow a serious legal mind and a patriotic institutionalist who would keep Trump from going off the rails can forget about it. Not only is he failing to provide those guard rails, he’s actively working to destroy them. When you drop an incendiary word like “spying” into a congressional hearing and then pretend you had no idea it would be problematic, it’s over. Sure, your minions can assure the New York Times that you had no ill intent and your Deputy Attorney General can paint the criticism of your handling of the Mueller report as just “completely bizarre,” but none of that changes the fact that you’re clearly weaponizing the Justice Department for use by the president.
Indeed Donald Trump knew exactly what to do with his newfound cudgel. “There was absolutely spying into my campaign,” Trump told reporters, playing up Barr’s characterization. “There was illegal spying, unprecedented spying.” That Barr was forced to concede at the hearing that he had “no specific evidence” but rather more of a gut feel that he wanted to explore was completely irrelevant by the time Trump had chewed it over and spit it back out to reporters the next day. Now the FBI investigation was definitively illegal and unprecedented.
This is the circus of the grotesque Barr has now ushered us into. The nation’s top law enforcement officer makes a completely unsubstantiated and indeed disproven claim with admittedly no evidentiary underpinnings and then the nation’s commander in chief repeats it resolutely, without caveat, as an unqualified truth. But it’s certainly not the first or even most consequential distortion of reality Barr has delivered. It all started when Barr declared Trump exonerated of wrongdoing even though he admitted that Robert Mueller had expressly declined to exonerate Trump, and then Trump declared his own “complete and total exoneration.” This is supposedly justice at work.
By the end of the week, the Trump campaign was fundraising off Barr’s miscarriage of justice.
Trump campaign flagrantly mischaracterizing Barr’s testimony in fundraising solicitation >> pic.twitter.com/8OSqySc0Xc
— Kyle Cheney (@kyledcheney) April 12, 2019
“What a disgrace,” noted one DC journalist. “That Barr has found no way of correcting this… bad for him and the country.”
It absolutely is a disgrace. But we’ve also past the point where anyone should be expecting anything from Barr other than a complete distortion of the law, integrity, truth, and decency. He’s out for blood. When Barr used the word spying, that was by design. It’s not a word that anyone in law enforcement actually uses. It’s not a shorthand at the Justice Department or the FBI or the CIA. As former federal prosecutor and FBI official Chuck Rosenberg told Nicolle Wallace Friday, “In all of my years in law enforcement, and many spent on the national security side of law enforcement, I have never heard the term ‘spying’ applied to what we do.” So Barr suddenly injecting the rhetoric of Trump and Rep. Devin Nunes and Fox’s Sean Hannity into his testimony was both an overt choosing of sides and a declaration of war.
Democrats would do best to listen. If there’s one advantage to Barr’s lack of nuance, it’s that Democrats now know exactly where he stands. He is using his platform atop the Justice Department to stage his final act as a partisan warrior no matter what the cost to the country.
Trump is perfectly clear about the new world we are living in and it’s the one he always dreamed of. It’s the one where he initiates a purge at an agency where he can’t get people to break the law for him, even if they did happily implement his draconian fantasies of inflicting sheer terror on desperate and helpless families. It’s the one where he invents the legal standards that suit him by simply promising administration officials a pardon if they commit the illegal acts he instructs them to. It’s the one where Attorney General goes to the mat for him every time. If Trump wants him to stop defending a law like the Affordable Care Act, he salutes and doesn’t bother explaining to anyone. Not like that wimp Eric Holder did when he stopped defending the Defense of Marriage Act in 2011 and provided Congress with a lengthy legal explanation for why President Obama and the Justice Department had concluded there was no constitutional defense of the law. (And by the way, the Supreme Court agreed with them.) And it’s also the one where if Trump needs the Attorney General to bend due process in order to streamline deportations of asylum seekers, he’ll likely do that too. It might not quite equate to Trump’s suggestion of simply getting “rid of the judges,” but it will certainly degrade America’s promise of justice in favor of helping Trump reach his political ends.
Democrats do appear to be waking up to the new reality that, enabled by Barr, Trump has been unleashed and none of the old rules apply. After Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin stepped in for the IRS to reject Democrats’ request for Trump’s taxes, House Ways and Means Committee Chair Richard Neal on Saturday gave the administration a hard deadline of April 23 to turn them over. Neal warned that failure to meet the deadline would be “interpreted as a denial of my request,” setting up the predicate for a subpoena. Democrats made a similar move this week with a letter to Barr once again demanding the full Mueller report. Following Barr’s Trumpian performance at the congressional hearings, Democrats used the occasion to question his ability to serve as an independent arbiter of how Mueller’s report should be released.
“Your testimony raises questions about your independence, appears to perpetuate a partisan narrative designed to undermine the work of the Special Counsel, and serves to legitimize President Trump’s dangerous attacks on the Department of Justice and the FBI,” they wrote, renewing a call to “work together” to ensure that Congress receives the full report.
House Democrats on the Judiciary Committee also took note of Friday reports about Trump’s dangling of a pardon to a Customs and Border Patrol official along with Trump’s latest desire to use human beings as pawns in his political war with Democrats.
What the President is talking about here is spending taxpayer dollars to use immigrant families—mothers, fathers and young children—as pawns for political retribution. This is both morally repugnant and probably illegal. https://t.co/6l3PgF2eg8
— (((Rep. Nadler))) (@RepJerryNadler) April 12, 2019
None of Democrats’ efforts are moving fast enough for the many sane people in this country who are watching a maniac destroy the rule of law, the Democratic institutions that administer it, and the constitutional foundations that underlie it. But this week Democrats were laying the groundwork in the form of a paper trail for court battles on multiple fronts regarding their ability to conduct oversight of the executive branch. Those battles are almost certain to head to a conservative Supreme Court stacked with two justices who owe their seats to Trump, and Democrats will need every available arrow in their quiver to prevail.