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 — or maybe none at all.
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 this summer, Durham fulfills his charge and emerges with an allegation 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.
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? Please.
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.
Hold on, you might say. That doesn’t mean things won’t change in the election. We’re months away from November, and anything could happen.
But there’s reason to think that may no longer be true, at least when it comes to the ordinary stuff of campaigns. Yes, one of the candidates might suffer a serious illness, or Earth could be invaded by aliens. But no photo op, no raucous rally, no biting new ad, no catchy slogan, no overblown micro-controversy will overcome the crushing weight of reality.
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 of us because of his disastrous denial and mismanagement. Tens of millions of Americans have lost their jobs.
You can’t spin any of that away, no matter how clever you are — and Trump and the people who work for him are not that clever.
The only way Trump can 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.
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 at the Justice Department. At least that’s something to be pleased about.
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