Bill Barr reminded us of something important this weekend: Evil people can fuck shit up, too. We usually ascribe matchless brilliance to the bad guys, hence the phrase “evil genius.” But they’re not geniuses. Hitler, thank heaven, was a terrible general. And Barr is so in thrall to his 16th century world view, so intent on turning the United States of America into a clerical theocracy, that he forgot that we have laws and that he can’t just get away with anything.
Yes, his attempt to replace Geoffrey Berman, the Southern District of New York U.S. Attorney probing and charging Trump’s pals, was unethical, maybe illegal, and obviously scandalous. But it was stupid, too. It backfired on him immediately, and it deserved to. It was great to see that he and Donald Trump couldn’t get away with installing their lackey. Credit the prosecutors who objected, credit the media for its tough coverage (including at the Beast), and don’t forget to credit Jaime Harrison here, too. If he weren’t running a credible and competitive race against Lindsey Graham, there is no way Graham would have said Saturday that he’d permit Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand to block the lackey’s elevation.
A central truism of the Trump era is that nothing sticks because the president or one of his minions does something more shocking than the last shocking thing every three days, so we lose track and don’t remember, but this one will stick. This one, people will remember. Barr still has all the power that an attorney general possesses, but as a figure with any moral authority at all, he’s a dead man. Like all the Torquemadas throughout history, he’s done more damage to himself than his opponents could have dreamed of doing.
Now, our attention must turn to John Durham. He’s the Connecticut prosecutor whom Barr has appointed to come up with an October Surprise to help re-elect Trump. The plan is obviously for Durham to hand down indictments before the election of John Brennan, James Comey, Peter Strzok, Lisa Page, Chris Orr, and anyone else involved in the so-called scandal of the FBI’s investigation into the 2016 Trump campaign.
Durham has been operating largely below the media’s radar. He makes the papers only occasionally. But recently, in a big New York Times Magazine profile of Barr, Mattathias Schwartz asked Barr a number of pointed questions about what Durham is up to. Barr all but admitted that what he expects from Durham is a finding that yes, Russia did interfere in the 2016 election—but on behalf of Hillary Clinton, not Trump. Or at least, he wants something like that to muddy the picture.
Step back now and remember: Our 17 intelligence agencies agreed unanimously that Russia interfered to assist the Trump campaign. The Senate intelligence committee emphatically agreed, on a bipartisan basis. What Barr wants here is to use the Justice Department to cast doubt on all those findings, exonerate Trump, and get headlines about indictments of allegedly Hillary-loving (and Joe Biden-loving, while we’re at it) deep staters right before the election to try to advance the narratives about Trump being a victim of a cabal and Biden somehow being part of this corrupt enterprise.
It is disgraceful. And today, in light of the Berman ouster, which followed similar shenanigans to put “his people” in place at the District of Columbia U.S. Attorney’s office and an exodus of top officials from Main Justice in Washington, people had better be paying renewed attention to what Durham might be up to. Democrats have to start drawing attention to this.
What they need to do is to pre-bake public opinion here. This is something Republicans do really well, and Democrats do really badly. If you expect that X is about to happen, you start saying that X is about to happen, and X is corrupt. That way, you’ve planted the seed, so when X happens, you say, “See! I told you so! This is corrupt.” Barr, of course, did a variation on this when he pre-announced the results of the Mueller Report, making it sound much less damaging than it turned out to be.
So Democrats need to start saying right now that Durham is engaged in a phony investigation that is an attempt by Barr to rig the election. They need to say it and say it and say it. And then, when Durham issues his report or indictments, public opinion, or the important slice of it anyway, will be conditioned to believe that it’s all a scam.
And they need to pressure Durham as well. Little is known about the man. I’ve read some profiles, but they’re generally not informative. He’s held in high esteem. Fine. Remember, it wasn’t so long ago that we were reading those same kinds of profiles about Barr, before he went full General Franco on us.
Who is John Durham? What manner of man is he? Does he really want to go down in this kind of historical infamy, of trying to bail out a lawless president? Maybe he does. Maybe that’s exactly who he is. We have no idea. But if he’s not that, if he’s actually just a decent conservative (a dying breed in this country, but there are a few), then he should want no part of Barr’s conspiracy.
The Berman affair puts all this in much sharper relief. We’ve just seen Barr think he can get away with anything. But he didn’t. The nation rose up to say no, you can’t do anything. And if Durham tries to execute what Barr wants, and close to an election, the nation will rise up again. And Republican senators from Graham and Mitch McConnell on down, looking at bleak poll numbers and fearful of losing their elections, will decide maybe they’d better keep their distance.
So the dam is starting to leak. Tulsa and all those empty seats showed how weak Trump is right now. And the way Berman outmaneuvered the administration to get his preferred successor in the U.S. Attorney post showed how weak Barr is. Now, it’s up to John Durham to behave like a patriot and not a hack.
Trump and Barr are evil, but they’re a long way from being geniuses. And here’s hoping that under President Biden, Attorney General Preet Bharara will make sure they get the living accommodations they deserve.