Donald Trump treated his last attorney general like he was a dimwit defense lawyer who couldn’t understand his basic duties. That was a bit rich – a phrase that should perhaps get carved on to Trump’s tombstone – but it was at least consistent.
Trump simply couldn’t understand Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, the former senator from Alabama and first supporter of the Trump campaign in the Senate. Here was a man rejected for a judge’s position because of his obvious racism, who warmly embraced the demonization of immigrants at the southern border.
With such fine credentials, why wouldn’t he just do what he was told?
All his other lawyers followed all his other harebrained schemes – at least until he stopped paying them or they got flipped by the pesky prosecutors. “So why aren’t the Committees and investigators, and of course our beleaguered AG, looking into Crooked Hillarys crimes & Russia relations,” tweeted Trump six long months ago.
For Trump, there could only be one answer. He called his attorney general Mr Magoo, the bumbling myopic old cartoon fool, because he allowed the Mueller investigation to go forward. He sometimes got creative and conjured up some other type of idiot. “This guy is mentally retarded. He’s this dumb southerner,” Trump said, according to Bob Woodward’s reporting. “He couldn’t even be a one-person country lawyer down in Alabama.”
This is an unfortunate way to talk about Trump country. Especially if you sell yourself as the only man on the planet to truly understand the long-suffering inhabitants of the place: a man so in tune with southern ways that he served300 cold burgers on silver platters to the South Carolinian football champions from Clemson. (Of course, Trump couldn’t help but lie that he personally paid for 1,000 burgers because, well, he’s a bit rich.)
It’s also an unfortunate way to talk about the attorney general and the rule of law. Which begs some pretty profound questions of the man who wants to replace Mr Magoo: William Barr.
Why would anyone in their right mind want this job? Especially if you happen to have served as attorney general previously for a sane and dignified president like George HW Bush, as Barr did in the early 1990s.
The answer, according to Barr in his Senate confirmation hearings on Tuesday, was his undying love of the Department of Justice itself. “I am in a position in life where I can provide the leadership necessary to protect the independence and reputation of the department,” he said. “I will not be bullied into doing anything I think is wrong – by anybody, whether it be editorial boards or Congress or the president. I’m going to do what I think is right.”
These are fine words. Until you know what Barr thinks is right. Perhaps he won’t be bullied into all things Trumpy. Then again, perhaps he doesn’t need to be bullied.
Take this extraordinary message from Barr to Peter Baker of the New York Times, which explains what Barr thinks of Trump’s demands for investigations into the Clinton Foundation and the government-approved sale of Uranium One to Russia.
Uranium can cause brain damage and the Uranium One conspiracy has left a trail of radioactive nuttiness across the nether regions of the right wing for several years.
For any justice department veteran, like Barr, the notion that Clinton manipulated the entire bureaucracy of foreign investment review doesn’t pass the laugh test.
But Barr insisted that all is fine and dandy with Trump demanding the justice department go after Clinton for the latest wingnut wackadoodle story to air on Fox News.
“There is nothing inherently wrong about a president calling for an investigation,” Barr wrote to the New York Times. “Although an investigation shouldn’t be launched just because a president wants it, the ultimate question is whether the matter warrants investigation, and I have long believed that the predicate for investigating the uranium deal, as well as the foundation, is far stronger than any basis for investigating so-called ‘collusion’. Likewise the basis for investigating various ‘national security’ activities carried out during the election, as Senator [Chuck] Grassley has been attempting to do. To the extent it is not pursuing these matters, the department is abdicating its responsibility.”
Barr was writing in late 2017, and the Grassley “investigation” was one of those other radioactive rightwing ruses about the Obama administration FBI spying on the Trump campaign under the guise of all this Russia stuff.
This is not an isolated case of Barr lending his considerable legal reputation to the flakiest fringes of Trump forgeries.
Just seven months ago, around the time Trump was publicly flogging his attorney general, Barr wrote an unsolicited memo to the justice department explaining in detail why he thought Mueller should not be allowed to question Trump about firing James Comey as FBI director in order to halt the Russia investigation.
Barr’s memo was a perfect pretzel of Trumpian delusion, claiming that obstruction of justice really just means witness tampering or destroying evidence. Nothing, Barr argued, could stop the president’s “complete authority to stop or start a law enforcement proceeding”. Ergo, nobody in law enforcement can stop Trump from blocking any legal action against himself. Brilliant!
To be fair, Barr concedes in his memo that he is “in the dark about many facts” including the, um, facts about Mueller’s investigation and the legal basis for any possible case he might be building. Which is to say: everything.
This is the context for Barr’s fine testimony on Tuesday, when he said he was a longtime friend of Mueller and would allow him to “complete his work”. He just wouldn’t necessarily allow the public to see all that wonderful work of his great misguided friend. “I don’t know, at the end of the day, what will be releasable,” he explained.
So what does he think are the consequences for a president interfering with law enforcement to save himself, or his family? Barr helpfully outlined a hypothetical case where a president called up the justice department to do just that.
“He’s the chief law enforcement officer and you could say, well, he has the power, but that would be a breach of his obligation under the constitution to faithfully execute the laws,” he told California senator Dianne Feinstein. “So in my opinion, if he attempts – if a president attempts to intervene in a matter that he has a stake in, to protect himself, that should first be looked at as a breach of his constitutional duties. Whether it also violates a statute, depends on what statute comes into play and what all the facts are.”
In other words, you’re going to have to impeach Trump because a Barr justice department won’t prosecute its chief law enforcement officer.
That may be Barr’s best hope for protecting his beloved justice department. It just so happens that it’s also Trump’s best hope for protecting himself, because this Senate will never vote to find him guilty in an impeachment trial.
William Barr is clearly no Mr Magoo. He’s far too smart and far too accomplished a lawyer. But like James Comey before him, his day of reckoning lies ahead: that moment when his love of his institution runs headlong into a president who should be institutionalized. At that point, what’s left of Barr’s reputation will become so much depleted uranium.