The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion William Barr’s new defense of Trump actually unmasks his corruption

(Alex Brandon/AP)

When Attorney General William P. Barr delivers his long-awaited testimony to a House committee on Tuesday, he will engage in all manner of clever hair-splitting and obfuscation, as all good personal attorneys do.

President Trump picked Barr for exactly that role, as Trump revealed in advance by raging at Barr’s predecessor for failing to protect him sufficiently. Barr has subsequently functioned as Trump’s chief defender with a dedication that surely surpassed Trump’s wildest expectations.

And so Barr will obfuscate and hair-split both to protect Trump and to obscure his own role in doing so. Fortunately, Barr’s written opening statement to the House Judiciary Committee already showcases how he will go about this.

More broadly, Barr’s statement already displays how fraudulent Trump’s claims to represent “law and order” truly are. This will be evident from Barr’s defense of Trump’s corruption and his law enforcement crackdowns against protests.

Barr gets started on the first of those as follows:

Ever since I made it clear that I was going to do everything in my power to get to the bottom of the bogus “Russiagate” scandal, many of the Democrats on this committee have attempted to discredit me by conjuring up a narrative that I am simply the president’s factotum who disposes of criminal cases according to his instructions.

Note that Barr dismisses the entire Russia story as “bogus,” including the established fact of a massive foreign effort to subvert U.S. democracy on Trump’s behalf. The special counsel’s report documented that attack in extraordinary detail, and it was fleshed out by a bipartisan Senate investigation.

Follow Greg Sargent's opinionsFollow

Barr, of course, shamelessly misrepresented the special counsel’s findings to the American people, dishonestly obscuring Trump’s efforts to obstruct the special counsel’s probe, which were subsequently denounced by hundreds of former prosecutors. And as Paul Rosenzweig details, Barr flatly distorted the Justice Department inspector general’s finding that the investigation was lawfully predicated.

Barr, of course, has launched his own “review” of the roots of the Russia investigation. This is really about discrediting the findings of that investigation — that is, the fact of Russian interference, in addition to whether the Trump campaign conspired with it — just as Trump wants him to. Barr helpfully confirms this by dismissing the entire affair as “bogus.”

Barr then tries to rebut the charge that he does Trump’s bidding on “criminal cases” this way:

The president has not attempted to interfere with these decisions. On the contrary, he has told me that he expects me to exercise my independent judgment to make whatever call I think is right.

It’s hard to overstate how disingenuous this is. Trump railed in public over the case brought against Trump confidant Roger Stone, openly attacking the Justice Department sentencing recommendation even as Barr and top officials reduced it, causing career prosecutors to quit in protest.

And on Russian interference, Trump has denounced the investigation as corrupt and a hoax countless times, publicly telling Barr in all kinds of ways that he expects his attorney general to discredit it.

To whatever degree Barr takes these orders to heart, there can be no serious argument that Trump hasn’t tried to corruptly influence his decisions. The idea that Trump told him to exercise “independent judgment” is like saying that when a mob boss says to an underling, “I know I can count on you to do the right thing,” he means it literally.

Barr defends Trump’s crackdowns

Barr’s statement also defends Trump’s law enforcement crackdown in Portland by arguing that “legitimate protests” have been hijacked by violent attacks on federal property:

What unfolds nightly around the courthouse cannot reasonably be called a protest; it is, by any objective measure, an assault on the Government of the United States. ... Remarkably, the response from many in the media and local officials to this organized assault has been to blame the federal government.

Barr goes on to detail many acts of violence, but this account, too, is absolutely saturated with evasion and disingenuousness. The question is not whether individual acts of violence against federal property and/or agents are illegal and should be punished; they are and they should.

Rather, the question is whether law enforcement officers from the Department of Homeland Security have overstepped their boundaries by cracking down on protesters on terrain removed from federal property, and by doing so in defiance of local officials’ demands that they refrain.

If anyone is “blaming the federal government,” it’s for doing those things, and local officials are absolutely within their rights to do so. And as David R. Lurie notes, that conduct is particularly galling given Trump’s directive that states are largely on their own against the coronavirus.

Indeed, two former DHS secretaries under George W. Bush have declared all those legal issues to be extremely serious ones.

The question is also whether Trump is sending in law enforcement for nakedly political purposes — to create televised imagery in swing-state living rooms that he believes will assist his reelection, imagery that literally matches what is in his political ads.

Another question is whether Trump is unleashing law enforcement to deliberately incite additional violent civil conflict to rescue his faltering campaign. Barr can spew fake pieties all he wants, but everyone knows it’s perfectly plausible that Trump is doing exactly this.

As President Trump threatens to unleash the military on American cities roiled in civil unrest, it's clear that he's embracing his inner Nixon. (Video: The Washington Post)

In exercising such extraordinary obfuscation and dishonesty in defense of what Trump is doing, Barr strips bare Trump’s true vision of “law and order.”

“Law and order" entails the weaponizing of the machinery of justice to obscure a massive crime against U.S. democracy that Trump has openly invited a second time, the weaponizing of it to protect Trump’s cronies, and the weaponizing of it to suppress domestic dissent and manufacture authoritarian agitprop for nakedly corrupt purposes — all with impunity. With the impunity that the imprimatur of his attorney general brings.

Read more:

Greg Sargent: Trump’s authoritarian crackdown is so bad that even some in the GOP are blasting it

Colbert I. King: This is nothing like Nixon’s Washington

Max Boot: Chad Wolf launched a small war in Portland. He’s just getting started.

James Comey: Is televised conflict Trump’s goal?

Ruth Marcus: Trump’s agents are sweeping peaceful citizens off the streets. This is not America.