Every great authoritarian enterprise comes to its apotheosis more from the soulless, mechanical efficiency of armies of bureaucrats and police than from the rantings of whatever Great Leader or revolutionary firebrand mounts the podium. A four-hour, spittle-flecked speech in Berlin, Havana, Moscow, or Kigali is, in the end, less consequential than the memos and slide decks of competent people given over to the service of evil.
Bad governments don’t start as nihilist terror; they’re the work of people who look like your neighbors. They build anodyne policy directives to justify the acidic erosion of the rule of law. They put the tools of government and administration to darker and darker purposes while compartmentalizing inevitable excesses in the name of political expediency.
The gray, heavy-set man who sat before two congressional committees over the last two days embodies the triumph of the banality of Washington's bureaucratic class, a droning Kabuki performer leading the House and Senate committees through several hours of monotone testimony intended to disguise the explosive consequences of his appointment as attorney general.
William Barr’s tone was calm, but his agenda was clear: His job is to protect Donald Trump, no matter the prerogatives of Congress or any consideration of the rule of law. Bill Barr is not the attorney general of the United States. He is the Roy Cohn whom The Donald has craved since become president; an attorney general who sees his duty as serving Trump.
Barr won the job by writing a memo before he knew a single fact contained in the Mueller report. Its tacit and overt promises were irresistible to Trump: As attorney general, Barr would protect this president from charges of obstruction. Barr knew then, and knows now, that he has an audience of one: Donald Trump. Like Barr’s job-application memo, every word of his testimony this week screamed out obedience to the president.
Unlike Watergate, Barr’s cover-up is happening in real time and on live television, as the chief law enforcer of the United States promised without a flicker of emotion that he will redact the Mueller report as he sees fit. He dared Congress to challenge his decision to hide relevant material from their eyes and those of the American people. He refused to provide a co-equal branch of government with information to which it is legally entitled. This is a partisan political decision that will ramify into a hundred bad outcomes.
Barr is the attorney general of the Trump regime, and protection of the maximum leader is his sole mission. He is a weapon, not a servant.
Barr knew what he was doing when he claimed Wednesday that the Trump campaign was “spied on.” He was teeing up the upcoming show trials of Trump’s “enemies” in the Department of Justice and the FBI that the president’s craziest supporters in Congress, and at his rallies, have been screaming for. Together with allies like Lindsey Graham, Barr needs to not only feed Trump’s revanchist agenda, but to throw up chaff to confuse the results of the Mueller report that may somehow see the light of day.
Barr is also openly weaponizing the Department of Justice to potentially sully the future public, private, and legal testimony of members of the DOJ, FBI, and intelligence community who have seen the damning data on Trump and his claque. The goal is to intimidate anyone who would investigate Trump’s vast portfolio of corruption and obstruction of justice, both before and after he took office. It goes far, far beyond the Russia probe; it is an investigation that by its nature aims to terrify all future witnesses and whistleblowers into silence.
By acceding to Trump’s demands for political revenge and refusing to call out the language of witch hunts, crooked cops, angry Democrats, and treasonous enemies within, Barr sent a message to every member of the DOJ and intelligence community—even before reaching his own investigative conclusion—that they can either follow the Trump line, or potentially face persecution and prosecution.
As usual, anyone counting on the Democrats not to blow it this week was disappointed. Democrats failed to hold Barr to any meaningful account in the hearings this week, asking questions in an oblique, diffident manner that mirrored Barr’s cool affect. They whispered when they needed to shout. They threw underhand softballs when they should have brought the heat. They were lulled into a trance, still believing they can shame the shameless or trap Barr and Trump with some kind of bluff.
The fact the Democrats aren’t already in court to get the full, unredacted Mueller report is exactly the kind of behavior that happens in nations slipping from democracy to authoritarianism. They think this is procedural and political, not existential. There are no brakes, no white knight in DOJ to come to the rescue, and unless Democrats get the entire report in court, Barr, Trump, and Fox will write the history of this sorry affair.
Barr exudes just enough of the comforting style of the Washington insider to quiet the fears of many in the House and Senate. He comes across as pedestrian and legalistic, bordering on dull, but he’s the most dangerous man in America.