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No other government official will have their reputation changed more than William Barr, the attorney general. At his confirmation hearing in 2019, he promised independence and a patriotic duty to fix the Department of Justice.
That was then.
What’s happened. Now it is extremely hard not to shake the impression that his vision of justice consistently appears in complete line with what benefits President Donald Trump staying in office.
A really bad analogy. For starters, Barr this week compared coronavirus stay-at-home orders, which Trump has opposed, to slavery. “You know, putting a national lockdown, stay at home orders, is like house arrest. Other than slavery, which was a different kind of restraint, this is the greatest intrusion on civil liberties in American history,” Barr said at a Constitution Day celebration put on by Hillsdale College.
South Carolina Democratic Rep. Jim Clyburn said that Barr’s comment was “the most ridiculous, tone-deaf, God-awful thing I’ve ever heard.” CNN’s Brandon Tensley went deep on the painful absurdity of drawing any kind of analogy between forced bondage and government recommendations designed to keep Americans safe from a deadly virus, especially during this time of a general re-examination of the country’s racist history.
Trump’s man. But it’s just the latest example of the impression Barr has given that he either agrees with most, if not all, of the things that come out of the President’s mouth or is at least more than willing to humor and enable it.
Brooking no dissent. At the same event, Barr said US attorneys lack the political judgment or clout to bring some charges. He referred to them as headhunters seeking glory and as junior level employees. “Name one successful organization or institution where the lowest level employees’ decisions are deemed sacrosanct, there aren’t. There aren’t any letting the most junior members set the agenda,” Barr said during his speech.
“It might be a good philosophy for a Montessori preschool, but it is no way to run a federal agency,” the attorney general added. (Montessori kids are clearly the most unruly of the pre-school lot in his mind).
Barr’s targets. One problem here is that Barr’s top-down approach always seems to benefit Trump’s buddies and hurt his enemies.
He’s considered looked into charges against Portland city officials for the protests that took place in their city around a federal courthouse.
His DOJ made an about-face on admitted law-breaking by Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser.
He exerted influence before the sentencing of convicted felon and Trump buddy Roger Stone. Prosecutors quit in protest.
Conversely, the Justice Department gotten involved in the stream of tell-all books condemning Trump in recent months.
They tried to revoke release granted to former Trump lawyer and confidant Michael Cohen because of Covid. Cohen filed a lawsuit against Barr.
They’ve opened a criminal inquiry into former national security adviser John Bolton.
Barr vs. protesters, Trump vs. protesters. While Trump was building his reelection campaign around opposing peaceful protesters in US cities, Barr was helping engineer the military-style crackdown on protesters in Lafayette Park.
More recently he’s suggested charging violent protesters with sedition. That’s a conspiracy to overthrow the government. It’s listed alongside treason in US code.
He’s pushed the Trump and the Right’s conspiracy theory that Antifa is a threatening cabal. The US national security apparatus is more concerned about right wing extremist groups.
Barr adopts the “deep state” line. During that interview with journalists in Chicago, Barr also pushed Trump’s idea of a “deep state” of government workers out to undermine him and blamed this supposed deep state for tying Trump to Russia despite all the evidence.
Trump thinks Barr is his guy. Why else would he have asked the leader of Ukraine to meet with Barr as part of the effort to discredit the Russia investigation? He’s distinctly refused to say he won’t release the results of that investigation in the lead-up to November.
Barr knows he’s not supposed to be directly involved in politics. He’s supposed to be upholding justice for all Americans. He said as much during an interview with Chicago journalists. Then he pushed the President’s alarmist line that if Biden wins the White House, the US would be “irrevocably committed to the socialist path.”
What this means for November and beyond. While Barr has described as “bulsh**” the idea that Trump would try to seize power if he lost the election, Barr has also subtly fueled Trump’s argument that mail-in voting is rigged and questioned the flow of Democratic-leaning mail-in votes expected to pour in through the mail system.
“Someone will say the President just won Nevada. ‘Oh, wait a minute! We just discovered 100,000 ballots! Every vote will be counted!’ Yeah, but we don’t know where these freaking votes came from,” Barr said.
Election law professor Richard Hasen writes for CNN that this undermining of election integrity is the most dangerous thing Barr could do.
And about the “bullsh**” – Barr said it’s fear-mongering by Democrats that Trump could reject the election results. But he also, during testimony before the House Judiciary Committee this past summer, did not unequivocally say he’d leave office on January. What he said was: “Well, if the results are clear, I would leave office.”
He and Trump sure seem ready to say the results aren’t going to be clear. Trump said Thursday on Twitter the results may never be known.
Where will that leave us? When then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch met in a plane on a tarmac with Bill Clinton in 2016, it fed a persistent conspiracy theory inflaming the Right that the two were in cahoots to bury information about Hillary Clinton. After an inspector general report, it appears it wasn’t much more than a long and ethically inappropriate conversation that Lynch regretted having because it gave a false impression and allowed people to question her independence from her boss, Barack Obama.
Barr has done absolutely nothing to express his independence from his boss, even though that’s what his job is supposed to demand. And that’s what he promised when he got it.
And that matters not just from a theoretical standpoint. It matters because Barr will still be attorney general after Election Day and at least until January 20, when the next president is due to be inaugurated. It will be up to him to enforce the rule of law during that period, when the long history of peaceful transfers of power in the US may be tested like never before.
The Abe Lincoln beard is distracting
I get somewhat distracted every time I see a photo of CDC Director Robert Redfield because his Abe Lincoln-style beard makes him look so much like C. Everett Koop, the Reagan-era Surgeon General now lionized for raising awareness about the dangers of smoking, withstanding Reagan administration efforts to crack down on abortion despite his personal opposition to the practice and writing a key government report about AIDS.
Koop had celebrity status in the United States in the ’80s and that gave him the power to tangle with tobacco state senators and withstand White House pressure. His New York Times obituary describes him as insisting that condoms be mentioned in that AIDS report and withstanding smear campaigns from social conservatives.
Redfield, who lacks Koops stature and has faced his share of criticism, is also known for his work on AIDS. Back during that condoms debate, he was on the other side, pushing abstinence. His views have changed.
But now he’s in the position of withstanding pressure from the White House, as he did this week when he said, contra President Trump, that masks are the top priority to stop the spread of Covid 19. On Instagram today, I posted Getty images of Redfield testifying Wednesday and Koop testifying back in 1998.