So it is that Attorney General William P. Barr, having already worked to secure a lighter sentence for Trump pal Roger Stone, has now given former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn the equivalent of a get-out-of-jail-free card, abandoning the case against him just as Flynn was about to be sentenced.
Soon after, Trump spoke on the phone to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the two had good reason to celebrate. While Putin’s 2016 effort to get Trump elected was, in large part, an attempt to discredit Western democracy, he could barely have imagined how effective it would be. Not only is our election system now in a credibility crisis, Trump has made our legal system a joke, too. What could make Putin happier?
To recap, Flynn had twice pled guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russia, during an interview that occurred in the first days of the Trump presidency. The Post’s David Ignatius had reported that Flynn had a phone conversation with the Russian ambassador on the day the Obama administration expelled Russian diplomats in retaliation for Russian meddling in the election. It was suspected that Flynn and the ambassador may have been working out some kind of deal even though Trump had not yet taken office.
Flynn lied both to the public and to Trump officials about what he discussed with the ambassador, claiming they were just exchanging pleasantries. The FBI knew he was lying, because they were monitoring the ambassador’s phone calls. Worried that Flynn could become a target for blackmail, the Justice Department informed the Trump administration and sent agents to interview Flynn. He then lied to the agents as well, a crime to which he later admitted.
For all the international intrigue, the case against Flynn was pretty straightforward. There was no question that what he did was illegal; all of Trump’s absurd talk about a deep-state conspiracy doesn’t change that. And the idea that the national security adviser would be lying to investigators was appalling enough that even Trump realized Flynn could no longer serve in that job.
Now, let’s fast-forward to the present, and how utterly bizarre it is that the attorney general would swoop in at the last moment before a criminal’s sentencing to drop the case against him.
Prosecutors are notorious for seeking maximal sentences even when it’s less than justified. This is why no one can seem to recall a case in which there was no dispute about what the defendant did, he pled guilty, he was set to be sentenced, and the attorney general personally intervened to withdraw the case. “A range of former prosecutors struggled to point to any previous instance in which the Justice Department had abandoned its own case after obtaining a guilty plea,” reported the New York Times.
During an interview with CBS News, Barr offered some unpersuasive pablum about the interests of justice, but gave up the game when he was asked how history will view his decision in this case. “Well,” he said with a laugh, “history is written by the winners.”
Now imagine you were watching this series of events from outside the United States. A notoriously corrupt businessman gets elected president; as time goes on, we learn more about how he has spent a lifetime breaking rules and laws without consequence. As he has throughout his career, he surrounds himself with fraudsters and crooks, a number of whom wind up behind bars.
After complaining for months that the ideological extremist he installed as attorney general was insufficiently willing to act as his personal protector to enable his corruption (“I don’t have an attorney general,” he whined), the president installs a new attorney general, who makes his debut by misleading the public about the contents of an investigation into Russia’s effort to manipulate our elections.
That attorney general then goes on to make extraordinary and unprecedented personal interventions into judicial proceedings to help the president’s cronies escape full accountability for their crimes.
If you were watching that from some other country, and then an American friend suggested that your own legal system should endeavor to become less corrupt, you’d laugh in their face. You’d say that just as in any dictatorship, in the United States, the law doesn’t seem to apply equally to the president’s associates, let alone the president himself. Your American friend would have nothing to say in response.
And trust me, Trump and Barr are not done yet. With six months to go before the election, it would be utterly shocking if Barr did not do what Trump tried to strong-arm Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into doing: opening up an “investigation” into former vice president Joe Biden or his family, for no purpose other than creating headlines suggesting the presumptive Democratic nominee is as corrupt as Trump himself.
Should Trump lose in November, a good deal of the harm he has done to the country can be reversed fairly quickly. But not all. Trump’s own moral rot has spread throughout our national institutions, fed by people such as William Barr. It will take years, or maybe even decades, to undo the damage.