Back in 2018, before William Barr was appointed to the position of Attorney General and while Robert Mueller’s investigation intensified, a cornered and angry Donald Trump cried out in desperation: “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” He longed for a legal fixer as shrewd and amoral as the late Cohn, a Joe McCarthy enforcer who was one of Trump’s political and ethical mentors, The New York Times reported.
Desperate to fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the right-wing Trump loyalist who mostly did the president’s bidding but recused himself (correctly) from the investigation of Russian election interference, the cornered president couldn’t afford to jettison another law enforcement official, his political advisers said.
That November’s blue wave election back in 2018 swept away congressional Republicans, as well as Donald Trump’s reservations about dumping Sessions. He quickly fired him and nominated Washington establishment figure William Barr as his successor. One thing that made Barr scary was the perception that the former George H.W. Bush attorney general was smarter than Trump or Sessions, admittedly a low bar. But even that’s not so obvious anymore.
Barr’s disastrous attempt at a Friday Night Massacre, firing Southern District of New York (SDNY) US Attorney Geoffrey Berman, blew up in his face when Berman, a 2016 Trump supporter, refused to go along with the cover story that he had resigned. That forced Barr to get Trump to fire Berman—which meant he couldn’t appoint a more pliant replacement. Berman will be succeeded by his deputy, longtime prosecutor Audrey Strauss, widely known for her independence.
Ironically, or not, one of the notches on Strauss’s belt is successfully prosecuting a case facing Roy Cohn face to face in a mob-related case.
No one can say for sure why Barr and Trump wanted Berman out. A former law partner of Rudy Giuliani, Berman seemed to run afoul of Team Trump starting with his prosecution of longtime Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, as well as his indictments of Giuliani associates Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman on charges that they illegally donated more than $300,000 in foreign money to GOP campaigns. His office was widely believed to be investigating Giuliani on related issues, particularly the trio’s attempts to coerce Ukrainian officials to provide “dirt” on former vice president Joe Biden, Trump’s 2020 opponent. There were reports that his office was investigating Deutsche Bank, a longtime Trump partner. Oh, and Berman also obtained indictments against a Turkish bank that Trump wanted protected, John Bolton’s new book reveals.
Whatever the motive, the ham-handed way Barr came for Berman made sure he’ll get little or nothing of what he and his boss wanted. On Friday night, Barr announced that the White House would seek to confirm Securities and Exchange Chair Jay Clayton, a Trump golfing buddy who’s never been a prosecutor (but who did work for Deutsche Bank), in Berman’s role; until then, the acting head of the office would be another US Attorney, Craig Carpenito. But because Berman had to be fired, the job automatically goes to his deputy, Strauss. As for eventually confirming Clayton? Trump’s best Senate friend, Senate Judiciary Committee chair Lindsey Graham, said he’d defer to Clayton’s home state senators (a once-bipartisan courtesy that’s mostly gone missing in the age of Trump), Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, who want to block the move and deny Clayton a hearing.
When you’ve lost Lindsey Graham…
It’s been a terrible weekend for Trump, beyond the Berman mess. His planned Tulsa coronapalooza fizzled Saturday, in part apparently because teens used social media to scarf up tickets they didn’t intend to use. But I think it’s mainly that with coronavirus cases spiking in Tulsa, even red-state voters decided not to risk their lives for their leader. The sight of a bright blue sea of empty seats rattled Trump, according to many reports, and it should. It’s more evidence that the blue wave we saw in November 2018 could still be coming for him.
Meanwhile, as Barr has gotten more brazen in his attempts to subvert the law, he’s gotten sloppier. His four-page memo of lies about the Mueller report last year fooled too much of the media, at least temporarily. There’s been more skepticism about his shocking interventions to reduce his department’s own sentencing request for Roger Stone, and to drop perjury charges against former national security adviser Michael Flynn (though Flynn admitted the crime). Both moves resulted in career attorneys resigning and widespread criticism from the legal establishment and the media.
Then there was his decision to brutally clear Lafayette Park of peaceful protesters so Trump could have his silly Bible photo-op outside St. John’s Episcopal Church. Even the administration’s top military advisers had reservations, and Barr took command, “essentially assuming battlefield control over a hodgepodge of security forces in Washington for days from a command center he set up, according to people who received briefings inside the center,” The New York Times reported.
Barr’s decline into blatant but ineffectual lawlessness is proof that Trumpism is a degenerative disease.
It’s hard not to believe some or all of these actions merit an impeachment inquiry. But House Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler disappointed a lot of Barr critics when he seemed to take that off the table Sunday. He told CNN’s Jake Tapper that Barr deserves to be impeached, but it would be “a waste of time” since there’s no chance the GOP-led Senate would convict him.
Is Barr planning an ‘October Surprise”?
That Attorney General William P. Barr has corrupted the Justice Department so that it is singularly devoted to the president’s personal political interest is barely in question anymore. But with the election less than five months away and Barr undoubtedly planning further interventions to secure President Trump’s victory, he may have less power to save Trump than it appears.
That’s not only because Barr has discredited himself by acting more like an employee of Trump’s reelection campaign than the nation’s chief law enforcement officer. It’s also because his efforts are focused on creating perceptions that will help Trump, at a moment when — if you can believe it — reality actually does matter.
Indeed, the big surprise of the moment may be that reality is now all that matters.
Barr did an interview with Fox News this weekend, in which he echoed some of the president’s preposterous claims (mail voting is fraudulent!) and previewed coming revelations from the farcical investigation he ordered to discredit the probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election. While it may seem like an inconsequential sideshow to much more important issues, the very fact that we think about it as relatively unimportant is revealing.
Barr expressed disappointment that the public isn’t more eager to hear from John Durham, the Connecticut U.S. attorney who has been tasked by Barr with investigating the origins of the Russia investigation.
“So that has been surprising to me, that people aren’t concerned about civil liberties and the integrity of our governmental process in terms of the future of Durham’s investigation,” Barr said. “You know, he’s pressing ahead as hard as he can. And I expect that, you know, we will have some developments hopefully before the end of the summer.”
Durham’s investigation is a joke; it’s premised on the gobsmacking idea that when the FBI learned in 2016 that the Russian government was attempting to manipulate our presidential election, they shouldn’t have even bothered to look into it.
But imagine for a moment that sometime late this this summer or early fall, Durham fulfills his charge and emerges with an allegation for the Attorney General that in some way can be twisted into supporting the narrative that the whole Russia investigation was just a nefarious attempt by the “deep state” to undermine the noble and blameless future president, Donald Trump.
Who could possibly care?
Sure, it will be given blanket coverage on Fox News. The president will tweet angrily about persecuted he is, when he’s not tweeting angrily about aides who have betrayed him or fake polls or TV shows he doesn’t like. But what difference will it make?
Would a story like that make Trump’s base even more paranoid and resentful? That doesn’t seem possible. Would it convince any undecided voters that Trump deserves another four years in office?
Trump tried to strong-arm Ukraine into announcing a bogus investigation of Joe Biden; that got him impeached. According to John Bolton, Trump implored Xi Jinping to help him get reelected; that didn’t work either. Nothing he tries has changed the fundamental dynamic of this campaign.
But what if Barr isn’t done? What if just before the election he unveils a new investigation of Biden, in an echo of what James Comey did with Hillary Clinton 11 days before the 2016 election? Wouldn’t that be a blockbuster?
At this point, it’s hard to imagine it would. After the “But Her Emails” debacle of 2016, everyone — both the news media and the public — will be much more skeptical of any last-minute revelations that supposedly cast suspicion on Biden, especially coming from this government.
The big difference is that in 2016, Barack Obama was still president and the Justice Department retained a presumption of nonpartisanship. Given Barr’s utter corruption of the department to serve Trump’s political interests, that is no longer the case, which diminishes Trump and Barr’s ability to use the government to attack Biden. After all, such efforts are built on creating a perception of Biden’s corruption, but at this point all they’ll do is reinforce the perception (and reality) of Trump’s corruption.
We’ve been living with President Trump for three years and five months. Americans know who he is and what they think of him.
We’re in the midst of a pandemic that has killed 120,000+ Americans because of his disastrous denial and mismanagement. Tens of millions of Americans have lost their jobs and a clear majority of American support the Black Lives Matter protests while Donald Trump continues to hold onto and promote racial emblems tied to the confederacy while pouring gasoline on the fires of racial division with each new tweet.
You can’t spin any of that away, no matter how clever you are.
We have seen ample evidence, culminating last weekend with the “million supporters turnout” expected by Trump for his Tulsa rally that was sabotaged by teenagers online, drawing only slightly more than 6,000 to a campaign event that had been hyped by the president for weeks.
Clearly, neither Trump or the people who work for him are clever enough.
One of the only ways for Donald Trump to win this election is if he disqualifies Biden in the eyes of voters; to convince them that the catastrophe of the present is not as bad as what would happen if Biden were elected. But so far, Trump’s campaign has utterly failed to make that case. And while Barr might try to create the illusion that Biden is corrupt or criminal, he has no credibility to make the public believe it at this point.
Never mind that he would need to accomplish that herculean task while simultaneously defending himself from non-stop attack ads coming at him from both the DNC as well as conservative ‘Never Trumper’ groups, rehashing the long list of low points from his time in office, not to mention the new Bolton allegations plus a tell-all book by his niece that promises to reveal a lot of new soiled laundry of Donald Trump and his families sordid history.
Another way that Donald Trump may be counting on is for his attorney General to launch some ‘October Surprise’, announcing extreme measures to reduce the number of polling stations even further, nullify mail-in ballots and other means designed to disqualify large numbers of voters in heavily Democratic districts.
But such an obvious and overused ploy is likely doomed almost certainly to failure as well, especially in this current political environment.
America will not stand idly by and simply watch its democracy be snatched away by such cynical figures overstretching the powers of their office and the legal intent of our constitution. History has taught us that much.
We’re living in a moment of clarity. Our current reality is so horrific that it will not let us turn away. Spin cannot carry the day, not even when delivered from a podium in the Rose Garden or at the Department of Justice.
At the very least, that’s indeed something to be pleased about.