Members Only | April 18, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Impeach Barr First
Trump is lawless. So too seems America’s top cop.
There was only one reason for today’s press conference by Attorney General William Barr. He did this kind of shuck and jive once already. He did it again this morning. The goal was not to clarify evidence and facts. It was not even to clear the president.
It was to sow confusion, muddy the water, so that the voting public can’t tell what’s true and what’s false. The gambit rests on whether people trust Donald Trump. Most don’t. Most have made up their minds. I don’t think that’s going to change.
Remember Barr’s four-page summary? That sent headlines into the Twitterverse to the effect of “No collusion, no obstruction.” But the summary itself didn’t say that. The known facts of the matter didn’t suggest that. In any case, it made no difference.
Trump’s approval rating, per FiveThirtyEight, has been over and under 41 percent since late February. Barr himself later said that the summary wasn’t really a summary. So he forfeited the benefit of the doubt he’d been given. Today’s press conference assumed Barr had some of that benefit left. He didn’t, but he didn’t care.
The Democrats seem to be saying that Barr shouldn’t be attorney general anymore.
It’ll take time for the press to read through Robert Mueller’s report. From Barr’s perspective, it’s best to get in front of that by saying whatever palaver comes to mind, something with pop that will please Trump, thus sending headlines out that will be decried, debated, and fact-checked against what’s actually in the report.
Again the point isn’t transparency. The point isn’t public trust. The point isn’t even to clear Trump of wrongdoing (because no one will believe it). It’s to blunt the bad news found by Mueller’s investigation, and I’d guess to slow down or stop impeachment.
The thing about shucking and jiving is that it brings a lot of attention to the person doing the shucking and jiving. While that’s good for Donald Trump, it’s bad for Bill Barr. An attorney general is held to constitutional standards as least as high as a president normally is, because he or she is expected to prosecute justice impartially.
But Barr’s behavior has been transparently political, as if declaring that Trump has bent the rule of law to serve him. That image deepened when the Times reported that Barr had conferred with the White House before allowing Congress to see the report. Trump is lawless. We knew that already. But so too seems America’s top cop.
Congressional Democrats prepared for today’s press conference by pouring salt on Barr’s wound. He lost the benefit of the doubt after some of Mueller’s investigators came forward to say he was misrepresenting the investigation’s findings. (Barr also lost it after conceding that his summary wasn’t a summary.) For the Democrats, anything Barr said going forward was suspect, and they were going to make the most of it.
Before this morning’s press conference, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer said in a statement that the time had come to hear from Robert Mueller directly. Barr has fomented, the leaders said, “a crisis of confidence in his independence and impartiality.” The only way “to restore public trust” is for Mueller to testify. Trump can’t stop them. If Mueller testifies before the Congress, he’s going to cast an even bigger shadow over Barr’s remaining credibility. I don’t know about you, but this seems to be another way of saying Barr shouldn’t be attorney general anymore.
Trump is protected by a gigantic international right-wing media apparatus. This more than anything else is why the Democratic leadership doesn’t see a path toward impeaching a lawless president. But I can’t help wondering if Barr is providing an opportunity. He’s behaving like Trump’s attorney, not America’s. If Mueller testifies, his name will be mud. Yes, his name is already mud to many people, but with Mueller’s testimony, a way forward might be clear for the Democrats to impeach Barr.
The Constitution gives Congress the sole power of impeachment. That includes “executive officers.” Historically, Congress has reserved that for presidents and federal judges. It didn’t bother with the Cabinet. (Keith Whittington says an exception was President Grant’s secretary of war.) Congress didn’t bother because a president could resolve the conflict by asking for a secretary’s resignation. But Barr is important to Trump. He’s the Sandbagger-in-General. Trump needs him to stay. By impeaching Barr, the Democrats would at least force Trump to make an harmful choice.
But they’d do more than that, most importantly drawing the mainstream news media’s attention away from Trump and toward facts, which are still the Democrats’ greatest weapon. Impeaching this president might be impossible, but Barr could be a first step.
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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.