Illustration by João Fazend
If there is one thing that Attorney General William Barr’s testimony in the Senate last week made abundantly clear, it’s that he is fine with acting less like the chief law-enforcement officer of the United States and more like the personal lawyer for a tantrum-prone client named Donald Trump. Barr dissembled when answering questions about his handling of the Mueller report, then mischaracterized Robert Mueller’s objections to his spin on it, saying that the special counsel had been primarily troubled by how “the media was playing this.” In fact, Mueller had written, in a letter to Barr, that he was concerned because the Attorney General’s summary “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance” of his team’s work. Barr described that letter as “snitty” and probably written by “staff people,” thereby dismissing objections that Mueller clearly wanted in the historical record. By the end of the day, Barr had said that he would not come back and testify in the House, as he was scheduled to do. Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker, then said that, in misrepresenting Mueller’s discontent, the Attorney General had lied to Congress, which is “a crime.”
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.
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 testifiedthat 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.
The Democratic Party would be wise to get inside Mitch McConnell’s head. It is a dark place, to be sure, full of furious resentments, but it is amazingly disciplined and organized so that nothing matters but certain cherished goals. One of them is to make President Trump think he’s in charge of the Republican agenda. The other is to implement the Republican agenda.
The fruits of this discipline are everywhere to be seen. The federal judiciary is being transformed. The Supreme Court has already lurched to the right. The 13 circuit courts are swiftly following. Trump’s nominees get occasional Democratic support, but they hardly ever get Republican opposition. What Trump once said about shooting someone on Fifth Avenue applies to his judicial nominees as well: He could nominate the man he just killed and the GOP would support him.
McConnell (R-Ky.) is the great enabler. Trump has insulted him. He has berated him. He has zinged him on Twitter and harangued him over the phone. But the Senate majority leader, like the Little Engine That Could, just keeps on going. He will not resign over principle because he has none. It is best in Washington to travel light.
This is a lesson for the Democratic Party. Its sacred obligation is to deny Trump a second term. It is not to turn the county socialist in any way, nor to institute Medicare for everyone, nor to award reparations to the descendants of slaves. Whatever the virtues of these programs, they present nearly insurmountable political problems, and they would, more likely than not, help reelect Trump.
A number of Democratic candidacies fall into the same category. South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg is an exciting new face, intellectually keen and dynamic, yet he’s also gay and married, and while I would exult in a picture of the two under the White House Christmas tree, I don’t think it would be embraced by portions of the United States. Mayor Pete is young, only 37. He can wait. First things first, and the first thing is to defeat Trump.
But that’s not what a considerable number of voters feel. I call them Lemming Democrats, and they were fingered in a Post article about a new poll that went online over the weekend: “[Joe] Biden’s campaign is centered on the idea of being the most likely to defeat President Trump in a general election. But slightly more Democrats and Democratic-leaning adults prefer a candidate whose positions are closest to theirs, rather than the one who seems most electable .” (Emphasis added.)
Those italicized words contain more than enough hemlock to kill the Democratic Party’s chances of doing in Trump. These are the lemmings, smugly heading toward the sea, consumed with virtue and deluded by a misreading of history. In the past, it was possible to argue that the difference between the two parties amounted to the difference between Tweedledee and Tweedledum or, to update matters, one Kardashian or another. But that is not the case for 2020. One statistic ought to settle the matter: By the end of April, The Post’s Fact Checker had found that Trump had “made more than 10,000 false or misleading claims.” The man lies with every breath; he is unfit for the presidency.
I want to ask the Lemming Democrats whether nominating a gay man to the White House is worth risking the reelection of a president who cannot tell the truth. Is supporting a socialist worth a second term for a chaotic autocrat who resists the notion of climate change, who would deny women the rightto abortion, who presents the United States to the world as a nation that resists family planning of any kind? Is support for reparations worth the victory of a president who insists on the glory of Robert E. Lee and whose embrace of the Kremlin is not simply puzzling but revolting? The foul odor of collusion and corruption clings to Trump. He’s a criminal whose crime is yet to be found.
McConnell must open his morning paper and chortle. He is a man who has never really stood for anything and here, to his puzzlement and delight, are all these Democrats willing to risk the reelection of the worst and most dangerous president in U.S. history. If that happens, the courts will be universally conservative and McConnell will have reversed just about every program conceived by President Barack Obama. Progress will halt, and the environment will be despoiled, and Addison Mitchell McConnell Jr. will go down as the most effective majority leader in American history. He will, though, have had plenty of help.
It may not have been his intention, but special counsel Robert S. Mueller III has forced a momentous choice on the Democrats who control the House of Representatives. How they navigate the next several months will matter not only to politics but, more importantly, to whether the rule of law prevails.
If we lived in a normal time with a normal president, a normal Republican Party and a normal attorney general, none of this would be so difficult. Mueller’s report is devastating. It portrays a lying, lawless president who pressured aides to obstruct the probe and was happy — “Russia, if you’re listening . . . ” — to win office with the help of a hostile foreign power. It also, by the way, shows the president to be weak and hapless. His aides ignored his orders, and he regularly pandered to a Russian dictator.
Mueller’s catalogue of infamy might have led Republicans of another day to say: Enough. But the GOP’s new standard seems to be that a president is great as long as he’s unindicted.
And perhaps Mueller did not reckon with an attorney general so eager to become the president’s personal lawyer and chief propagandist. William P. Barr sat on the document for 27 days and mischaracterized it in his March 24 letter. He mischaracterized it again just an hour before it was released.
This leaves Democrats furious — and on their own. Unfortunately, it is not news that this party has a nasty habit of dividing into hostile camps. On the one side, the cautious; on the other side, the aggressive. The prudent ones say members of the hit-for-the-fences crowd don’t understand the political constraints. The pugnacious ones say their circumspect colleagues are timid sellouts.
Sometimes these fights are relatively harmless, but not this time. Holding Trump accountable for behavior that makes Richard M. Nixon look like George Washington matters, for the present and for the future.
Those demanding impeachment are right to say Mueller’s report can’t just be filed away and ignored. But being tough and determined is not enough. The House also needs to be sober and responsible.
This needle needs to be threaded not just for show, or for narrow electoral reasons. Trump and Barr have begun a battle for the minds and hearts of that small number of Americans (roughly 10 percent or a little more) who are not already locked into their positions. Barr’s calculated sloth in making the report public gave the president and his AG sidekick an opportunity to pre-shape how its findings would be received. The uncommitted now need to see the full horror of what Mueller revealed about this president. A resolute but deliberate approach is more likely to persuade them.
When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) joins her caucus on a conference call Monday, she will reiterate her “one step at a time” strategy. The bottom line is that rushing into impeachment and ruling it out are equally foolish.
This means the House Judiciary, Intelligence, and Oversight and Reform committees should and will begin inquiries immediately. Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) took the first step on Friday by subpoenaing the full, unredacted Mueller report, which the administration immediately resisted. Mueller himself has rightly been asked to appear before both Judiciary and Intelligence.
Nothing is gained by labeling these initial hearings and document requests part of an “impeachment” process. But impeachment should remain on the table. Because Trump and Barr will resist all accountability, preserving the right to take formal steps toward impeachment will strengthen the Democrats’ legal arguments that they have a right to information that Trump would prefer to deep-six.
For now, it’s useful for Democrats such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) to underscore the outrageousness of the abuses Mueller found by calling for impeachment while Democrats in charge of the inquiries such as Nadler and Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), chair of the House Intelligence Committee, say, as both did on Sunday, they’ll reserve judgment while they sift through the facts.
Of course, Trump is not the only issue in politics. Democratic presidential candidates are already out there focusing on health care, climate, economic justice and political reform. The House can continue other work while the investigators do their jobs.
In an ideal world, the corruption and deceitfulness Mueller catalogued would already have Trump flying off to one of his golf resorts for good. But we do not live in such a world. Defending democratic values and republican government requires fearlessness. It also takes patience.
“I realize how helpless and needy they are, but I’m afraid you still can’t claim a human as a dependent.”