It would be hard for any attorney general to withstand a deputy attorney general of the same party calling him “the greatest threat in my lifetime to our rule of law.” It would be harder still to withstand congressional testimony from two serving Justice Department prosecutors about his subordination of justice to the wishes of the president. But Bill Barr had a fantastic day in Congress on Wednesday.
That’s not because either official, antitrust prosecutor John Elias and ex-Roger Stone prosecutor Aaron Zelinsky, had their stories unravel. It’s because Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee stood enthusiastically behind Barr. And it’s also because Democrats offered little beyond harsh invective, thanks to a deep reluctance amongst their own leadership to get into another impeachment fight.
When Elias and Zelinsky testified about inappropriate antitrust investigations or leniency shown to convicted friends of the president, panel Republicans applauded the attorney general as the slayer of a Deep State out to entrap Donald Trump. Either that, or they went after Elias, Zelinsky, or former George H.W. Bush Deputy Attorney General Donald Ayer, who went far further in lambasting Barr as a kind of anti-constitutional officer.
“Bill Barr is trying to do the Lord’s work to clean it up, so it doesn’t happen again,” intoned Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), the senior GOPer on the panel, after again portraying the 2016-19 investigations of Trump as a witch hunt by Obama cronies.
Jordan set the tone. Barr, with his “exemplary record,” was “restoring integrity” within the department, said Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH). The hearing was a “farce,” said Rep. Mike Johnson (R-LA), with Democrats knifing Barr for “trying to clean up and clear up messes made by the previous administration.” Most ominously, Rep. Louis Gohmert (R-TX) told the three witnesses that “history will not judge you kindly in the days ahead… whether we get to continue this experiment in self-government or not.” A spokesperson did not respond to a question about whether Gohmert believes the American republic is in danger of collapse.
It was the most foursquare defense of Barr from Hill Republicans yet. Their support for Trump, post-Russiagate and post-impeachment, is compulsory at this point. But on Wednesday, they went beyond allegiance to Trump to affirmatively portray Barr as the one out to drain the swamp.
They did so days after perhaps the lowest point in Barr’s brief tenure. On Friday, Barr lied that the U.S. attorney in New York had resigned, prompting a weekend standoff over ousting Geoffrey Berman before Barr partially backed down. It remains unclear if Barr will himself testify before the House committee, but he knows he has a GOP firewall if he does.
Against all that, Democrats had rhetoric. Their leadership doesn’t want to impeach Barr. Their caucus is internally divided on what to do about him. Their response, which frequently overshadowed their focus on the substance of Elias and Zelinsky’s testimony, was to hurl invective at Barr. Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) called him Trump’s “fixer.” Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) called the politicization of the Justice Department “worse than Watergate, worse than Nixon.” Referring to Barr’s violent suppression of the June 1 protest in Lafayette Square, Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA) said that to the attorney general, friends of the president get pardons and reduced jail time, but “if you’re peacefully protesting brutality, you get tear-gassed.”
But despite their portrayal of Barr as a legal vandal, only one of them advocated removing him from office. “We should pursue impeachment of Bill Barr,” said Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN), “because he’s raining terror on the rule of law.”
Amidst the rhetoric, Justice Department prosecutors Zelinsky and Elias occasionally got to testify. Elias, from the antitrust division, told the panel that his office was pressured to pursue cannabis-firm mergers, sometimes not among competitors, because Barr finds marijuana disreputable. He further recounted political appointees atop the division pressing them to investigate California’s auto emissions deal with car manufacturers after Trump tweeted negatively about “California regulators.”
Zelinsky, far more famously, was a prosecutor for Russiagate Special Counsel Robert Mueller who successfully convicted Trump consigliere Stone before a Barr ally intervened to give the president’s friend a lenient sentencing recommendation. Both Zelinsky and Elias opened themselves up to career reprisal by testifying, as the impeachment aftermath showed Trump purging the administration of numerous meddlesome witnesses and inspectors-general.
Republicans were not interested in their testimony. They attempted derailing the hearing because Zelinsky testified remotely—something he explained was to protect his newborn baby from COVID-19.
Later, they figured having one of Mueller’s “merry band of Never Trumpers,” in Pennsylvania Republican Guy Reschenthaler’s phrase, was a good opportunity to go after Russiagate. Zelinsky instead batted away questions by pleading that the Justice Department had restricted him from testifying about anything about Mueller beyond his 2019 findings. Jordan reprised an impeachment tactic by saying that because Zelinsky hadn’t talked to Barr, he had no basis to say that there was anything political about the Justice Department overruling his team of career prosecutors to go easy on Stone. (Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida even went to the extent of predicting, “Roger Stone will be pardoned.”) Elias they portrayed as a Democratic hack for being detailed to the Obama White House and seeking an early 2019 assignment to House Democrats, which they claimed was enthusiasm for impeaching Trump.
Donald Ayer, who preceded Barr as deputy attorney general in the George H.W. Bush administration, didn’t have any inside knowledge about Barr’s attorney generalship. Instead, Ayer urged the committee “to distrust everything he says,” from his actions to suppress anti-white supremacy protests to the “Obamagate nonsense that’s being spewed by the president” and laundered into John Durham’s inquiry into the origins of Russiagate. With Barr publicly describing Durham’s ongoing investigation—to the point of the attorney general hinting at prosecutions to come—“no one is in a position to say he’s wrong, but he’s wrong,” Ayer said.
“Frankly,” Ayer continued, “my worry is he’s going to do it more and more in the weeks and months ahead as we get closer to the election.” With Republicans lining up behind Barr and Democrats confused about what they’ll do, Ayer’s worries are unlikely to abate.