When Bill Barr testifies before the Senate and House Judiciary Committees this week, don’t expect to hear the head of the Department of Justice answering questions from a co-equal branch of the American government.
That was the old, boring Washington, where the attorney general was a guardian of the law and justice, not of Donald Trump’s political fortunes.
Bill Barr already showed us his cards with his performances declaring that the Mueller Report had exonerated Donald Trump—which The Washington Post reported Tuesday evening were delivered over the strenuous objections of Robert Mueller, who wrote to say that the AG’s “depiction of his findings failed to capture the ‘context, nature, and substance’” of the probe.
It took that slap in the face for an experienced prosecutor to finally understand Barr is a bad actor who serves only Trump; Congress has no such excuse.
Barr is not an institutionalist. He is not a constitutionalist. He is a weapon crafted to protect and serve Donald Trump, using the protective coloration of a dull bureaucrat to carry out Dear Leader’s slow-motion subversion of the Republic.
Democrats still haven’t figured it out; unlike most of the human refuse Trump rounded up from behind the bus station to serve in his freak show administration, Barr knows the folkways and expected behaviors of Washington. He’s twice lulled Democrats into believing that he’s a down-the-line, rational pre-Trump Republican. If he were as gibberingly stupid and patently venal as the average Trump stooge, they might spot it, but he’s plainly not, and they clearly haven’t.
If Democrats lack the insight, courage, and outrage to truly confront Barr, Trump will win a sweeping victory this week. If Chairman Jerry Nadler lets Barr set the conditions under which the House Judiciary Committee can interview him, the game is already lost.
Wednesday’s Senate hearing will be reality TV, not oversight. Barr, Lindsey Graham, and the rest of the Trump cheer squad will be there to provide show prep for the Fox evening lineup, feeding the Trump-right media ecosystem a bolus of weapons-grade conspiracy horseshit.
In their entirely predictable way, the Senate GOP will use the entire hearing to go after the “real” villains: FISA (and how international Dorks of Mystery Carter Page and George Papadopoulos were swept up by same), the “FBI scum,” Hillary’s emails, the insidious Deep State, and the provenance of the Steele Dossier.
Senate Democrats, a minority sadly over-committed to the old, false comity of the pre-Trump Senate, will ask anodyne questions for which Barr will have rigorously prepared his answers. I’m not optimistic, but neither am I shocked. The GOP is Trump now, and Trump is the GOP.
It’s the Democratic Congress that is failing the leadership test on this and practically every other battle with this administration, and failing it badly.
They’ve consistently allowed Trump and his administration to set the terms and the tempo of their encounters. They’ve allowed vacuous, yapping freshmen with the strategic sense of mayflies to dominate their messaging and agenda, driving the Democratic Congress to do what they always do, and seek political irrelevance.
The Democrats make threats, set deadlines, and promise consequences for bad behavior, but like a parent who threats to spank but never does, the Toddler in Chief knows he’s in no real danger.
This president is lawless and has nothing to lose in these fights. He fears no legal sanction of any kind, now that his pet AG will forever run cover.
Most of all, Trump isn’t scared of impeachment. He welcomes it. He craves it. It would be the single greatest political gift of his tenure. He deserves it, but it won’t work.
This president is a low-rent, amoral, bottom-feeding criminal-adjacent scumbag, and the only thing that invokes a sense of wonder in him is how long he’s gotten away with the scams that define his business, personal, and now political life. He is a low man, and because he knows it, he wears with pride the things that would shame anyone with any moral compass. Impeachment won’t shame him. It won’t drive him from office. Unless you can convict, it’s a fool’s errand.
Impeachment for him is reality TV catnip, which will result in an acquittal in the Senate. A failed impeachment—and without a conviction, impeachment is nothing but an epic political circle jerk—will insulate Trump, embolden him and also raise around $200 million from his slack-jawed rube donor base. (“Nancy Pelosi wants to help GEORGE SOROS install LESBIAN MUSLIM CANNIBALS IN THE WHITE HOUSE! We MUST STOP HER! Click here to donate!”)
After impeachment, all the air goes out of every other probe of the corruption and practices of Trump’s administration. Once it fails, he’s free to rape and pillage the remains of Washington.
That doesn’t mean giving up. It means getting to work, and taking the political risks and engaging in the disciplined kind of political fights and rigorous, granular investigations that hold Trump to account, and grinds down the Cartmanesque “I do what I want” attitude Barr and others are using to shield Trump.
So that’s it, Democrats. You either start taking scalps this week, or you never will. You either start holding those who are obviously in contempt accountable, or you never will. Put just one Trump minion in jail for contempt, and you’ll show that you’re using the power the voters gave you. It’s that, or you can just shut up and watch AOC assemble Ikea furniture on Instagram.
The ballgame here isn’t the doomed impeachment process. It’s whether Congress still serves as an independent branch of government and whether it will exercise its powers under the Constitution and the law. This isn’t just the usual adversarial partisanship of the last 243 years. It is, without exaggeration, existential.
You’re a co-equal branch of government with all the awesome power and responsibility given to you by the Founders and the Constitution. Act like it. Exercise your prerogatives. Go to court and fight it out. Both parties have ceded congressional power in the last 25 years to the executive branch, but that was before Trump. The Founders’ design spec for the House and Senate is to provide a check on executive power, sometimes aggressively.
Ambition, as Madison wrote in Federalist 51, must check ambition. It’s about time the Democrats—not as a party or as partisan actors, but rather as the current leaders of a co-equal branch of government—check Trump’s.