Making no effort to hide an unprecedented attempt to thwart criminal investigations into Donald Trump, as well as stymieing congressional oversight of a laundry list of wrongdoings, the White House has launched a new and dangerous era in American politics. Today, the corruption and contempt for transparency is out in the open, with united Republicans flaunting their radical ways. This creates a whole new challenge for Beltway journalists, who for generations have been trained to uncover scandals and root out wrongdoing done in private. But how does a press corps deal with a Trump team that doesn’t even bother to hide the ugly stuff?
The new phenomenon was on stark display last week as Attorney General William Barr, testifying before Congress, honed his role as Trump’s personal defender while doing everything possible to muddy the waters surrounding independent counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. After releasing a wildly misleading four-page “summary” of Mueller’s report in March, Barr then purposefully misled Congress about whether Mueller disagreed with Barr’s assessment. Incredibly, Barr claimed that Trump was within his rights to fire an independent counsel if Trump felt aggrieved—or if he thought an investigation was unfair or too political. That was soon followed by the announcement that Barr’s Department of Justice was refusing to release the unredacted Mueller report to members of Congress.
It’s part of a much larger trend. Last week Trump, his family, and the Trump Organization filed a lawsuit against Deutsche Bank and Capital One, demanding that they not comply with congressional subpoenas seeking the Trumps’ banking and financial records. Earlier in April, Trump’s lawyers filed a similar suit in Washington, D.C., to prevent his accounting firm, Mazars USA, from responding to a different subpoena. And Trump’s Treasury Department recently defied a deadline to turn over his tax records to a House committee, which may soon ignite another legal battle.
In terms of refusing to comply with subpoenas, Trump has little legal ground to stand on, and the moves seem to be more of an effort to slow-walk the conflicts indefinitely. “Judges have repeatedly affirmed the power of Congress to investigate a wide array of matters and to issue subpoenas,” The Wall Street Journal reports. “But the litigation could easily take years, according to legal experts.”
What’s unfolding is a constitutional crisis wrapped around a cover-up. We have a massive, unapologetic campaign from the White House to rip up all norms of oversight and investigations of a sitting president. Yet on the day following Barr’s jarring testimony, CNN’s Jim Sciutto wondered if Democratic “hyperbole” about looming threats to democracy was going too far. His colleague Poppy Harlow agreed: “Is that a sort of a blinking red light for Democrats here?” Instead of being shocked by the GOP acts, they normalize them.
Days before, when Barr threatened not to appear before the House Judiciary Committee, The New York Times reported that it was all part of a partisan “feud,” which is not an accurate description of the attorney general of the United States desperately trying to protect the president, and refusing to answer questions from Congress regarding a looming cover-up.
Again, the corruption today is all out in the open, which is a strange way to run a cover-up. The Trump White House realizes the entire Republican Party apparatus will support its lawbreaking, which in turn imbues Trump’s inner circle with a cavalier sense of being untouchable.
So Barr appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee and didn’t even bother to concoct a convincing cover story for why he took the Mueller report and completely misrepresented its contents. The attorney general, who seemed oddly unfamiliar with the specifics of the report, was forced to admit under questioning from Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris that he hadn’t even bothered to look at the underlying evidence that Mueller’s team had collected before going ahead and exonerating Trump of any obstruction of justice charges.
And the reaction from every Republican senator on the Judiciary Committee while Barr lied and prevaricated about a criminal investigation into the president of the United States? They all rushed to Barr’s side. Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham is now doing everything possible to make sure Mueller isn’t allowed to address the American people by testifying before Congress. This is all completely unheard-of.
What’s unique for the press is that past cover-ups and scandals have traditionally featured defining, “Aha!” moments, when a stunning revelation or two completely changed the political calculus and a besieged president suddenly lost key support, especially on Capitol Hill. Think back to the famous “smoking gun” tape of the Watergate era, when everyone realized that President Richard Nixon had been recorded inside the Oval Office plotting to thwart a criminal investigation into the Watergate break-in. Within days of the tape being released, Republican leaders made the pilgrimage from Congress to the White House to inform Nixon that impeachment could not be stopped, because so many Republicans had abandoned him.
Today, virtually no congressional members of the Republican Party have abandoned Trump, even though his alleged crimes and misdemeanors to date—conspiring with a foreign government, violating the emoluments clause, making hush-money payments, obstruction of justice, etc.—far surpass what Nixon was accused of.
Those “Aha!” moments in the past have also represented crucial signposts for the press. They have been times when the press switched gears and added more urgency to their coverage in order to match the urgency of the suddenly public revelations. But I still think we’re not seeing that from journalists now. The Washington Post published an editorial critical of Barr’s congressional performance last week, but stopped far short of demanding his resignation, which suggests the paper still thinks Barr is perfectly suited to serve.
This isn’t even sophisticated or high-energy duplicity on display from Republicans today. It’s more of a workman-like contempt for transparency, oversight, and democracy. Is it that open, shameless quality of contempt that is confusing the press? You almost get the sense that journalists aren’t sure how to proceed because they’re not used to cover-ups and corruption being so obvious and unapologetic—and so cavalier.