Several events last week disturbed me to my core as I realized the depths that Mr. Donald J. Trump and his administration will go to protect him from the rule of law and any sort of accountability. One of the prominent warning signals came in the form of Attorney General William Barr’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. In case you missed the live broadcast of his appearance, I will point out that it was not just what he said in response to questions but also how he said it. He was clearly annoyed that any Senator would question his decisions or his power as the head of law enforcement in the United States. Perhaps more chilling was his unadulterated and unabashed pro-Trump posture. He is no longer the Attorney General of the United States, or even the attorney charged with protecting the presidency as an institution. He clearly and forcefully defended Mr. Trump, the man, and not the president, the office.
Among many startling elements of A.G. Barr’s comments regarding the Mueller Report are what I see as the three most egregious points:
- The most troubling and news worthy defense of Mr. Trump by A.G. Barr was his insistence that the president is above the law. You read that correctly. In response to a question on obstruction of justice — and the fact that if Mr. Trump was successful in carrying out the obstruction, then that could be the reason that no conspiracy to work with the Russians was proved — Mr. Barr stated that under the Constitution the president has the authority to oversee investigations (including those involving the president) and therefore has the authority to shut them down. Thus, there can be no obstruction even if the president stops an investigation into himself because it is within his power. He further argued that this is especially true if the president thought the investigation “was not well founded” or “groundless.” The president has the ability to declare it so. “The president does not have to sit there, constitutionally, and allow it to run its course.” And there you have it. All the president has to do is say that there is no reason to investigate him and then no one can investigate him. (I assume a “hoax” is “not well founded.”) The Attorney General believes the president is above the law. (For info, Article I for the proposed impeachment of Richard Nixon was obstruction of justice.)
- The second most troubling aspect of A.G. Barr’s testimony is that he waffled mightily in response to a question as to whether the president or any one else at the White House asked him to investigate others. The context was a section of the Mueller Report that indicated Mr. Trump pressured the Department of Justice (DOJ) to re-open an investigation of Secretary Hillary Clinton and others of Mr. Trump’s political opponents after the election. He finally answered “I don’t know.” Right. (As Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) pointed out, that’s not something one might forget.) It used to be a bipartisan agreement that a president using his office to investigate a political opponent on purely political grounds was an abuse of power (Article II of those brought against Mr. Nixon).
- The third most troubling comment was the confirmation by A.G. Barr that Special Counsel Mueller objected to the characterization of his report put forward by Mr. Barr on 24 March. In his statement summarizing the results of the Report he claimed that Mr. Mueller found no criminal evidence of conspiracy or obstruction. When the report was finally released, we found that was not true. Mr. Mueller wrote to Mr. Barr three days after his March summary to object to the characterization of his work. “The summary letter the Department sent to Congress and released to the public late in the afternoon of March 24 did not fully capture the context, nature and substance of this Office’s work and conclusions.” Some Senators think that Mr. Barr lied in his previous testimony when he said that he had not heard any objections from Mr. Mueller when in fact he had already received and read the letter.
There were more, but then you can read it for yourself.
Let’s put a few more developments from recent days out there to paint a picture. Consider the following:
- In an on-air discussion with Sean Hannity of Fox News Mr. Trump said of the Mueller Investigation, “This was a coup. This was an attempted overthrow of the United States government.” Incredibly — although I don’t know why I continue to be surprised — Representative Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), the House Minority Leader, used the same word in response to a reporter’s question.
- The Trump Administration asserted that it will fight or ignore any House subpoena. They are also going to court to stop subpoenas of other entities where Congress is seeking information about the president and possible financial ties to other governments or foreign entities. “We’re fighting all the subpoenas.” (Contempt of Congress — refusing subpoenas — was Article III of those against Mr. Nixon.)
- Mr. Trump still does not acknowledge Russian interference in the 2016 election. According to the Mueller Report there were 251 contacts between Trump campaign officials and Russian-connected operatives including 37 meetings in person or via Skype. At least thirty-three campaign officials and advisers held the meetings or were aware of such meetings. Recall that the Mueller Report concluded that “the Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion.”
On Friday, Mr. Trump and Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin held a nearly ninety minute phone call. Mr. Trump did not confront Mr. Putin about the attacks. President Obama may have been asleep at the switch and not done all that he could as his administration learned the breadth and depth of Russian intrusion, but he did talk directly to Mr. Putin to warn him against further meddling. He also imposed sanctions against Russia (which are the ones that presidential adviser Michael Flynn got into trouble over for calling the Russian Ambassador and saying that Mr. Trump would lift them). President Obama also expelled 35 Russian diplomats from the US and shut down two of their facilities in the US. Yet in his ninety minute conversation with Mr. Putin, Mr. Trump did not even bring up the Russian actions except to say that he and Mr. Putin did not collude and Mr. Putin should know because he was the one who was supposed to have done it. They then agreed that it was a hoax. You can’t make this stuff up.
So what does all of this mean?
When taken in their totality it means that we have a president with no boundaries, no oversight, and no sense of what is right. Mr. Trump still has not been held accountable for any of his outrageous actions and must surely think that the preponderance of evidence indicates that he never will be. Most certainly not by the Republicans in the Senate and not by the Attorney General. In fact, should someone, somehow initiate proceedings against the president, we already know that his A.G. says he can shut it down because, well, just because he can if he wants to.
It is also clear that Mr. Trump will not take Executive Action to stop Russian interference in the 2020 election. Although various agencies are working to shore up our defenses, there is no national level coordination and planning under way to prevent further meddling. Indeed, Mr. Trump and others in his administration implied that he would take their help again in 2020.(Russia if you’re listening…)
I think that the evidence above also indicates the Mr. Trump believes that the purpose of the federal government is to do his bidding and therefore he will not hesitate to use the full power and strength of the U.S. government to take down his political opponents. Apparently he will do so with the willing acquiescence of the A.G. and Republicans in the House and Senate.
Talk of coups really scares me. Do the president and the leader of the Republican Party in the House really think that the Mueller Investigation was an attempted coup? Stop and think about that for a moment. Anyone that threatens this president’s sense of well-being is a direct threat to him. Really? A coup? If they actually believe that then there is nothing he will stop at to prevent losing his power. And who will stop him? The House is being ignored (A.G. Barr won’t even show up to testify about the Mueller Report and his role in its release). No oversight there. The Senate trembles in its boots that one of their Republican colleagues will be the subject of a nasty Tweet. No oversight there. The Attorney General is now the personal defense attorney for Mr. Trump. No oversight there. The fix is in.
How far will he go? Declare martial law for some other self-created crisis? Nullify a close election he loses? Suspend the election because he Tweets out that the Democrats are attempting a coup? I am not sure what he is capable of doing.
Do I sound like a wing nut conspiracy dealer with too much time on his hands? I hope so.
And yet, the things I’ve mentioned above happened in only a matter of days. In other administrations, Republican or Democrat, there would be a major reaction to such a clear threat to our norms and national well-being. Sadly, most people just dismiss it as business as usual.
One theory floating around is that Mr. Trump and his advisers and supporters in Congress are pushing the Democrats in the House as hard as they can so that they are left with little recourse except for impeachment. Improbably, the Republicans think that an impeachment proceeding against Mr. Trump will help his approval ratings and “guarantee” his re-election in 2020. To them there is no down side as they know that the Senate would never convict him of the Articles of Impeachment. If that is the plan, how much further will the administration overflow the banks of good government to create a flood of institutional indignities to force the issue?
I worry that we are in the midst of the creeping destruction of our Republic. It is taking place in slow motion and in public so that most people who are rightly concerned with the day-to-day effort of just going to work, to school and of trying to keep food on the table don’t see it. Like everything associated with this president, it is hiding in plain sight.