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Attorney General William Barr will testify before the House Judiciary Committee today for the first time. Democrats tried to get him to appear to explain why he had misrepresented what was in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Report about Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. He refused to show up after learning that staff lawyers would be allowed to question him. Then coronavirus slowed down another meeting. Finally, House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) threatened to subpoena him, and he agreed to come in voluntarily.
But not happily.
Last night, he released a combative opening statement which begins by slamming “the grave abuses involved in the bogus ‘Russiagate’ scandal,” despite the fact that, in December 2019, the Justice Department’s own inspector general, Michael Horowitz, found that the investigation had been initiated properly and without political bias. The Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee has also unanimously supported the conclusion of the Intelligence Community that Russia attacked the 2016 election to benefit candidate Trump.
The rest of Barr’s opening statement similarly echoed Trump talking points.
The Attorney General of the United States is, of course, not the president’s lawyer. The AG is supposed to be the attorney for the United States, protecting the rule of law. (The office of the president has its own lawyer—the White House Counsel—and the president has his own bevy of personal lawyers.)
Today, as Barr testifies, a new book about him by Norman Eisen, who served as special counsel to the Judiciary Committee during the impeachment hearings, will come out. It examines how Barr’s misleading summary of Mueller’s report derailed the public inquiry into the relationship between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives, because no one wanted to believe the new Attorney General would “be willing to sacrifice his reputation for the sake of Trump. Now,” Eisen said in an interview with Just Security, “over a year and many lies later, we know much better.” Eisen says that Barr’s summary made Americans think—incorrectly—that Mueller had exonerated Trump, when in fact, the opposite was the case.
In a piece in Newsweek yesterday, Representative Eric Swalwell (D-CA) expanded on this idea. He noted Barr’s lies about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russia’s interference in the 2016 election; his attempts to dismiss the charges against Trump’s former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and lighten the sentence against Trump’s friend Roger Stone; as well as his firing of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Geoffrey Berman… and concluded that Barr has simply taken the place of Michael Cohen as Trump’s fixer.
CNN legal analyst Elie Honig, who spent 8 years as an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, wrote today that in Barr’s 18 months as Attorney General, he “has done profound and pervasive damage to the Justice Department.” He has undermined its credibility and independence. Honig outlined five issues where Barr has lied in public, including the quite transparent lie that Berman had resigned, which Berman himself promptly contradicted. Honig urges tomorrow’s questioners to ask about them.
It is unlikely that Barr will do more than obfuscate in today’s testimony. Because Senate Republicans will almost certainly never agree to convict Barr, impeaching him is a stretch, especially since Republicans will instantly insist that it is an election-year ploy. It could well backfire. But there is no doubt that Barr’s behavior is problematic.
Today conservative commentator Tom Nichols noted that Barr has emerged as the de facto leader of the Executive Branch, since Trump is “functionally incapacitated.” It is, Nichols says “a total collapse of constitutional order within the Executive branch” as Barr is using federal law enforcement officers against U.S. citizens. Nichols urges courts, state attorneys general, and state authorities to step into Barr’s way.
Nichols is an advisor to The Lincoln Project, which is hammering on Trump’s mental incapacity to perform the duties of the president. It must be acknowledged that Trump is giving them plenty to work with. Today the New York Times reported on Trump’s announcement that he would be throwing out the first pitch to the New York Yankees on August 15 at Yankee Stadium, an announcement Trump made just an hour before Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who has been advising Trump on the pandemic, threw out the first pitch at the opening game between the Yankees and the Washington Nationals.
Someone in the White House leaked that Trump had not been invited to do any such thing: Trump made up the event because he was annoyed that Fauci was getting more attention than he was. Then, of course, he “cancelled” the made-up plan with a racist tweet. “Because of my strong focus on the China Virus, including scheduled meetings on Vaccines, our economy and much else, I won’t be able to be in New York to throw out the opening pitch for the [Yankees] on August 15. We will make it later in the season!”
It is fair to say that this is not normal behavior for a president.
In tweets yesterday, a day in which coronavirus deaths passed the number of Union Army soldiers killed on battlefields during the Civil War, Trump outlined his plan for reelection. He will try to convince voters to forget about his botching of the pandemic response by insisting that Democrats will usher in an apocalypse.
“The Fake News Media is trying to portray the Portland and Seattle “protesters” as wonderful, sweet and innocent people just out for a little stroll,” Trump said. “Actually, they are sick and deranged Anarchists & Agitators who our great men & women of Law Enforcement easily control, but who… would destroy our American cities, and worse, if Sleepy Joe Biden, the puppet of the Left, ever won. Markets would crash and cities would burn. Our Country would suffer like never before. We will beat the Virus, soon, and go on to the Golden Age – better than ever before!”
It’s an aggressive argument, since of course markets have actually crashed and cities “burned” on his watch, and our country is suffering as never before with an unaddressed pandemic. The argument that the best way to overcome our current trouble is to trust him with another four years is going to be a hard sell, especially since a report released today in The Guardian notes that a new database of 893 politically motivated terrorist incidents in America since 1994 shows that just one attack that led to a death came from an anti-fascist agitator. In that incident, the single person killed was the perpetrator. In the same period, white supremacists and rightwing extremists have killed at least 329 people.
Once again, the Republican narrative is running into reality. But in this case, Trump has the advantage of having his man at the head of the Department of Justice.
There was, in Barr’s opening statement, a line that jumped out. He wrote that what is happening in Portland, Oregon, where protesters have vandalized a federal courthouse, “is, by any objective measure, an assault on the Government of the United States.”
No, it is not.
The interference of a foreign country in our elections is an assault on the government of the United States. Undermining the rule of law is an assault on the government of the United States. Vandalizing a courthouse does not threaten our nation. It is vandalism that should result in arrests by local police officers, as it has.
That the Attorney General is characterizing local vandalism as an assault on our national government is worrisome. It suggests that, less than four months before an election, he intends to keep sending into Democratic cities federal officers who are loyal to him and his president.
And if it happens, that will be an assault on the government of the United States, for sure.
Heather Cox Richardson is Professor of History, Boston College. This was originally published in her Substack newsletter: get your free subscription here