Barr Is Asking for Punishment

The Democrats should oblige him.

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Kamala Harris had a moment yesterday when she questioned the attorney general. But it was more than dramatic TV. It was more than a chance for Democrats to cheer.

The California senator induced William Barr to admit that he had not reviewed the evidence underlying Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s legal conclusions. This and other revelations put Barr’s credibility in serious jeopardy. If he hadn’t seen the evidence, how could he decide that the president had not obstruct justice? (Dick Durbin got Barr to admit that he started work on a decision to exonerate the president of obstruction before Mueller filed his report with the US Department of Justice.)



If there was any doubt about Barr’s credibility being in jeopardy, consider that he refused to show up for a scheduled hearing this morning during which he was expected to be cross-examined by House Judiciary Committee staff attorneys. After having one terrible horrible no good very bad day, Barr apparently decided that he would not humiliate himself on national television with a second round.

Critics complained that the Democrats spent too much time focusing on Barr and not enough on Donald Trump, the special counsel’s report and whether the president had acted criminally. But I think it was entirely appropriate, prudent and strategic to bear down on a man who is supposed to be an impartial administrator but who is transparently serving one man. (At day’s end, Dick Blumenthal asked to see notes taken of Barr’s phone call with Mueller. Barr said no, “why should you have them?”)

Focusing on Barr is good strategy, moreover, because he, the president’s attorneys, and the whole of the Republican Party are trying to turn the tables on the Democrats, forcing the FBI to investigate former Obama officials for “spying” on the Trump campaign. This is a conspiracy theory that lives a wild life inside the closed-circuit phantasm of Fox News and other right-wing media. Every single Republican senator Wednesday played a bit part in maintaining the charade. Yet it’s a charade that’s fueling the politicization of the rule of law, and that should terrify everyone.


Voters are unlikely to balk at impeaching him.


Barr told the panel that Trump had not yet waived executive privilege. But he did not say it as a matter of fact that’s independent on his volition. He said “we.” Barr: “No, we haven't waived executive privilege.” As in: My client, Trump, has not made that decision. Put other way: my client is prepared to use the law enforcement apparatus of the United States to punish people he dislikes. A Latin American dictator had the same thing in mind when he said: "For my friends everything, for my enemies the law."

A strong defense is sometimes a strong offense. Focusing on Barr is a way of stopping the above gambit before it gets going. On the one hand, the Democrats have drained whatever was left of Barr’s credibility. On the other, they appear to be focusing on multiple steps that together could lead to Barr’s impeachment or imprisonment.



Jerry Nadler, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, laid out the first step: holding Barr in contempt of the Congress. Nadler, this morning to an empty seat: “[The attorney general] has not only misrepresented the findings of the special counsel. He has failed to protect the special counsel’s investigation from unfair political attacks. He has himself unfairly attacked the special counsel’s investigation. He has failed the men and women of the department by placing the needs of the president over the fair administration of justice. He has even failed to show up today” (my italics).

That is very serious, but things got even more serious later Thursday morning when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said during a press conference that Barr had lied to Congress and that “that’s a crime.” Pelosi didn’t say he should go to jail for something that “if anybody else did … it would be considered a crime.” But that’s the closest I’ve seen the House Democratic leadership get to impeaching the attorney general.

That’s where this should go.

Harris and other Democrats said yesterday that Barr can’t be trusted and should resign. But that lets him off easy for a crime that put the president’s former attorney in prison. (Lying to Congress, by the way, is a felony even if you’re not under oath.) If the Democrats mean it when they say “the very system of government of the United States, the system of limited power, the system of not having a president as a dictator is very much at stake,” they must start by indicting Barr and presenting evidence of wrongdoing to the American people by way of wall-to-wall television coverage.

Voters are unlikely to balk at impeaching Barr, because they didn’t vote for him. The process of indicting him, however, might warm them up for the big show ahead.

—John Stoehr

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