The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion This nation is at the mercy of a criminal administration

Attorney General William P. Barr testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Wednesday. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Imagine that you live in a town that has been taken over by gangsters. The mayor is a crook and so are the district attorney and police chief. You can’t fight city hall. But at least you know you can turn for help to the state or federal government. Now imagine that it’s not a city or state that has been taken over by criminals — it’s the federal government. Where do you turn for help? That is not a theoretical concern. After the release of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report, it’s our grim reality.

Even before Mueller’s probe ended, federal prosecutors in New York had implicated President Trump in ordering his lawyer, Michael Cohen, to violate federal campaign finance laws. Mueller then documented at least six ironclad incidents of obstruction of justice by Trump along with numerous instances of misconduct that, while not criminal, are definitely impeachable. The New York Review of Books reported that two prosecutors working for Mueller said that if Trump weren’t president, he would have been indicted.

Now the administration is obstructing attempts to bring the president to justice for obstruction of justice. William P. Barr isn’t the attorney general; he is, as David Rothkopf said, the obstructor general. We now know that Mueller wrote (in Barr’s description) a “snitty” letter objecting that Barr’s deceptive summary of his work, designed to falsely exonerate Trump, “threatens to undermine … public confidence in the outcome of the investigations.”

Yet when Barr testified to Congress after receiving the Mueller letter but before releasing the Mueller report, he claimed not to know whether Mueller disagreed with his conclusions. “He lied to Congress,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) charged. But even if it could be proved that Barr committed perjury (no sure thing), who would prosecute him? Is he (or his deputy) going to appoint a special counsel to investigate himself? Unlikely. And if he did appoint a special counsel, would he heed the counsel’s conclusions? Also unlikely.

The chief law enforcement official seems intent on incinerating his professional reputation. (Video: Kate Woodsome, Joshua Carroll, Danielle Kunitz/The Washington Post)

Barr’s jaw-dropping performance before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday dispelled any lingering confidence in the impartial administration of justice — the bedrock of our republic. He actually testified that if the president feels an investigation is unfounded, he “does not have to sit there constitutionally and allow it to run its course. The president could terminate the proceeding and it would not be a corrupt intent because he was being falsely accused.” Given that no president has ever felt justly accused of any misconduct, this means that the president is above the law. Barr is endorsing the Nixon doctrine: “Well, when the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.”

The administration makes clear that this is precisely its intent with its scandalous stonewalling of Congress. Barr himself refused to appear before the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday. Trump is suing to prevent his accountants and financial institutions from sharing his business records with Congress, while his treasury secretary is refusing to comply with a lawful demand for his tax returns. Trump is also blocking numerous current and former officials, including former White House counsel Donald McGahn, from testifying about his misdeeds. His conduct is redolent of the third article of impeachment against President Richard M. Nixon for failing “to produce papers and things as directed by duly authorized subpoenas” from Congress.

While conferring legal immunity upon himself, Trump is eager to weaponize the legal system against his opponents. The Mueller report documents three separate occasions when Trump demanded a Justice Department investigation of Hillary Clinton. Now, the New York Times reports, Trump and his attorney, Rudolph W. Giuliani, are attempting to instigate a criminal probe of his leading 2020 opponent, Joe Biden, on what appear to be trumped-up charges of corruption. In one of the more chilling exchanges during his Senate testimony, Barr would not say whether “the president or anyone at the White House ever asked or suggested” that he open an investigation. If the answer were “no,” he would have said so.

It is hard to think of any president in the past 230 years, including Nixon, who has ever sabotaged the rule of law so flagrantly or so successfully to protect his own hide. And, sadly, it is hard to imagine that anything can be done about it before Nov. 3, 2020. The House could try to compel compliance with its subpoenas, but the Justice Department will never file criminal charges, and the courts could take years to decide a civil suit. The House could vote to impeach Trump or Barr — which they richly deserve — but that would be a purely symbolic act and could backfire politically because Senate Republicans, like the O.J. Simpson jury, would vote to acquit regardless of the evidence.

So for the next 18 months, at a minimum, this nation is at the mercy of a criminal administration. I am in despair as I have never been before about the future of our experiment in self-rule. Before Mueller filed his report, it was possible to imagine the president being brought to justice. That fantasy is no longer tenable. Instead we are left with the dismaying likelihood that the president will now feel emboldened to commit ever greater transgressions to hold onto power — and thus delay a possible post-presidential indictment.

Read more:

Greg Sargent: The White House’s latest attack on Mueller reveals an ugly truth about Trump

Eugene Robinson: The American people need to hear from Mueller — directly

Randall D. Eliason: Why didn’t Barr order Mueller to make the call on obstruction?

E.J. Dionne Jr.: William Barr has shamelessly corrupted the debate over the Mueller report

The Post’s View: William Barr torched his reputation. His testimony compounded the damage.

Greg Sargent: William Barr is helping to cover up Trump’s biggest crime of all

American journalist Austin Tice is missing in Syria. It's time to bring him home. (Video: Kate Woodsome, Joshua Carroll, Danielle Kunitz/The Washington Post)