Donald Trump’s pet attorney general gave a potent reminder on Monday of why he is the most dangerous man in Washington. In an otherwise routine press conference, while using the still-respected language of the justice system we once enjoyed, Barr green-lit a series of show trials of Trump’s enemies. It was a launch signal to the “Obamagate” players that while he’ll publicly play the role of a neutral solon of justice, Barr’s heavy thumb will be on its scales.
Barr is precisely the kind of lawless, bloodless enforcer any autocratic strongman wants on the team, giving a thin, barely passable veneer of legal probity to an administration known for its indifference to the law, to say nothing of morals, norms, traditions, and institutional imperatives. His ideological ferocity for elevating executive power beyond anything recognizable in a modern liberal democracy is boundless.
It’s vital to look at Trump’s AG not as an impartial and independent actor but as a crafty, smart campaign agent seeking to ensure Trump’s re-election and hold on power. He has broken the Department of Justice’s character, killing off its independence and recasting it as a servile enforcement arm of the Dear Leader’s will.
I’ve warned readers before never to take Barr’s rumpled appearance and monotone speech for granted. Still, you have to give the attorney general props for his pure, brazen line of bullshit on Monday, and his deep knowledge of how to make the Washington political press corps swallow and regurgitate even his most outrageous lies.
The press conference at the DOJ was ostensibly about the discovery of verified links between al Qaeda and Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, the Saudi national who shot up a U.S. military base in Pensacola, Florida, last December. After a detour into attacking Apple for not allowing the FBI a backdoor into its users’ data, Barr got to the real reason for the show.
Asked about the president’s demands for an “Obamagate” investigation, Barr broke a few hearts among the Q-crew that spent the weekend posting memes of Barack Obama in shackles or dangling from a noose—and also flagged exactly what he’ll be doing this fall.
“Now as to President Obama and Vice President Biden, whatever their level of involvement, based on the information I have today, I don’t expect Mr. Durham’s work will lead to a criminal investigation of either man,” said Barr. “Our concern over potential criminality is focused on others.”
After that magnanimous declaration that he doesn’t intend to try the last president or vice president for made-up crimes, he moved on into what may be the some of the boldest and remarkable lies any AG has ever uttered:
“Over the past few decades, there have been increasing attempts to use the criminal-justice system as a political weapon. The legal tactic has been to gin up allegations of criminality by one’s political opponents based on the flimsiest of legal theories. This is not a good development. This is not good for our political life, and it’s not good for the criminal-justice system. And as long as I’m attorney general, the criminal-justice system will not be used for partisan political ends. And this is especially true for the upcoming elections and in November.
“And we cannot allow this process to be hijacked by efforts to drum up criminal investigations of either candidate. And I’m committed that this election will be conducted without this kind of interference. Any effort to pursue an investigation of either candidate has to be approved by me.”
I’ve seen scam emails from Nigerian princes with more sincerity.
Barr then completely gives away the game in a statement of breathtaking mendacity:
“What happened to the president in the 2016 election and throughout the first two years of his administration was abhorrent. It was a grave injustice and it was unprecedented in American history. The law-enforcement and intelligence apparatus of this country were involved in advancing a false and utterly baseless Russian collusion narrative against the president.”
Seriously, people. Not one journalist on the call said “Uh, sir… that’s bullshit.”
Still, the headlines have been exactly what Barr intended: that he had no plans to prosecute either Barack Obama or Joe Biden.
Trump played into that, complaining later in the day to reporters at the White House that “If it was me, they would do it… It was a takedown of a president, regardless of me, it happened to be me, and in my opinion it was an illegal takedown.
“I’m going to let the attorney general make all of those decisions. I am going to stay out of it because it is the appropriate thing to do. I wouldn’t have to stay out of it, as you know, but I’ve decided to stay out of it.”
Yes, the Trump media world will be disappointed, as will the click farms of Trump-right agitprop hucksters. After a weekend of Trump rage-tweeting Obamagate demands to Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham, and others, how could Barr betray the Dear Leader? How could the most loyal of loyalists allow that wily Kenyan Muslim socialist sleeper agent Obama—excuse me, Barack Hussein Obama—to once again slip the net of scrutiny and accountability?
The answer is clear: Because the Barr statement was not what it appeared to be.
It wasn’t about feeding the base. It certainly wasn’t about putting the kibosh on the ludicrously fake conspiracy theory that Trump is calling Obamagate.
No, what he was doing was a clever bit of misdirection and chicanery. On Monday, Barr played a role in a little one-act play for the media. You see, they still cover him as if he is a normal AG in a normal GOP administration in a normal moment in our history.
Barr knew the big headline about letting Obama and Biden off of the hook would distract from his to-the-death efforts to block access to information about Trump’s shady Ukraine deal, obstruction of justice, hidden taxes, or witness testimony on a host of issues that Congress has demanded, and most importantly, the parts of the Mueller investigation that Barr quashed and distorted.
He also knew the big headline would distract from the coming Durham report, which gives every indication of being a tit-for-tat exercise, and one timed for maximum impact in the midst of an election. It’s no coincidence that Lindsey Graham (R-Trump’s colon) on Monday announced that his Senate Judiciary Committee would soon vote to subpoena damned near everyone in the Obama administration who came within a mile of the Russia probe.
Barr has demonstrated time and again that he is willing to politicize the Justice Department to protect Trump. His Durham investigation, his de facto pardon of Mike Flynn, his manipulation of the Mueller Report, his suppression of any voices inside the DOJ who would ever hold Trump accountable for anything, has been evident from the start. Lord knows what role Barr played in making sure Paul Manafort got out of prison early and that Michael Cohen didn’t, but Manafort is at home curled up in his ostrich jacket and Cohen is still in Otisville. They’re all just previews of the travesties of justice still to come between now and November.
Barr will play a supporting role in the Obamagate narrative that Fox News, The Federalist, the Trump campaign, the RNC, and their dog’s breakfast of other Trump media types will be pushing until Election Day. His DOJ will selectively either liberate or prosecute. He will continue to make outrageous statements like he did Monday with a straight face, casting himself as the defender of normalcy and DOJ integrity. He’ll cherry-pick the elements of the Durham report—just as he did with the Mueller and Horowitz reports—to describe Trump as the poor, beleaguered victim of those deep state meanies. He’ll feed the media machine, right on time, and with maximum effect.
If you think Barr’s Justice Department will take a single step to confront Trump or his cronies with any kind of challenge, think again. His hyper-maximalist vision of executive power borders on the fetishistic. If you think he’ll call out Russian and other foreign interference in our elections if it benefits Trump, guess again.
Anyone who was fooled by Barr’s probity and gravitas act Monday will be soon disabused of their naiveté. Show trials have a way of doing that.