Ceaselessly ripping up norms, Donald Trump has clearly turned the Department of Justice into a political weapon, and Attorney General William Barr now gladly oversees it with one goal in mind: protect the president at all costs. It's a stunning and unprecedented crisis in American justice to have the nation's top law enforcement officer actively enabling the White House and doing it so brazenly, without concern for the shredding of the department's reputation for independence.
Once again, the corruption is hiding in plain sight, as the emboldened Trump team doesn't even bother trying to conceal its misdeeds. In Barr, Trump finally has the Sean Hannity-like attorney general he was looking for: someone who tosses off vacuous, dishonest talking points, sounding like a seasoned Fox News pro, all in the cultish defense of Trump.
Under Barr's radical DOJ, new rules dictate that the Republican president cannot be prosecuted; Congress can't investigate the president; Congress can't subpoena his top aides; the Department of Justice will investigate anyone at the FBI who previously tried to uncover the truth about Trump's actions; and, if needed, the DOJ will investigate the president's political rivals. That's Trump’s explicit goal. He recently said that it would be fine for him to instruct Barr to investigate Joe Biden, a likely 2020 opponent. Then, at a rally over the weekend, Trump told loyalists chanting, "Lock them up” (in reference to Democrats) that his attorney general would look into the possibility.
Obviously, this is straight out of authoritarian rule and dictatorships, and it's the type of political maneuvering usually seen in developing countries where democracy hasn't taken root. For America's top cop to be a willing to partner in Trump's destruction of democratic norms and weaponizing of the DOJ for political gain is an unheard-of development for the U.S.
So why isn't the Beltway press being clear-eyed about the crisis that's unfolding? Why isn't the media stating clearly that Barr no longer actually functions as an independent attorney general and examining the profound implications that has for America?
Instead, ABC's Cokie Roberts recently wrote a piece suggesting that what Barr's been doing isn't all that different from the actions of previous DOJ chiefs. "Like many attorneys general before him, Barr wouldn't be the first to show his partisan stripes," she wrote, in a wildly irresponsible attempt to rationalize Barr's efforts to undercut democracy. It's also just one more example of the media normalizing Trump's criminal regime.
There have certainly been opinion columns highly critical of Barr's role in trying to protect Trump this year. But where's the institutional outrage? Where's the news coverage that explicitly details how Barr has walked away from more than a century of attorney general tradition in this country? Incredibly, neither The Washington Post’s nor The New York Times’ editorial page has called for Barr's resignation. Given his reckless track record during the past two months, it's almost impossible to imagine what he'd have to do in order for major newspapers to demand he step down. Would Barr follow that advice? Of course not. But the calls for resignation would help send clarion signals that, under Trump, America is facing a defining crisis.
Note that so far, Barr has only given two press interviews since becoming attorney general, both to Rupert Murdoch-owned properties: Fox News and The Wall Street Journal. With them, Barr knows he won't be pressed about his radically partisan behavior. (As for the Journal, Barr was gently described in a news article as a "68-year-old grandfather of five.") During those interviews, Barr mouthed longtime right-wing talking points aimed at discrediting Mueller and turning the alleged FBI “deep state” conspiracy into the real looming threat in America. "Barr’s interviews reveal the extent to which the sitting attorney general is willing to legitimize and advance this misleading conservative narrative on the Russia investigation," noted Talking Points Memo.
Barr's behavior this year ought to make clear that he has vacated the traditional attorney general role of overseeing fair law enforcement, and that’s a storyline the press should be relentlessly hitting. Barr brazenly lied about the contents of special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia report, both with his March 24 press release in which he falsely claimed Trump had been exonerated, and again during a press conference held just hours before the redacted report's release in April. A House committee has already voted to hold Barr in contempt for refusing to provide an unredacted version of Mueller’s report. Previously, Barr badly misled Congress when he claimed he didn't know how Mueller felt about Barr's public interpretation of the final report (i.e., Trump “exonerated”), when in fact Mueller had written to Barr directly and expressed deep concern over the attorney general’s public misrepresentation of the report's findings.
Meanwhile, Barr's DOJ recently provided political cover for Trump by claiming that former White House counsel Don McGahn did not have to honor a congressional subpoena to testify about the Mueller investigation. Democrats wanted to hear firsthand about McGahn's claim that Trump pressured him on multiple occasions to fire Mueller, pressure that would comprise obstruction of justice. McGahn claims he was then summoned to the Oval Office and told to deny accurate news accounts that Trump had asked him to get rid of Mueller. (Trump insists that McGahn is lying.)
The Republican-controlled Department of Justice argues that McGahn cannot be compelled to testify before Congress, based on previous DOJ legal opinions. But those opinions are about providing a zone of privacy for presidential advisers to counsel the president and not be forced to reveal the conversations. They do not apply to former employees such as McGahn and questions of possible criminal conduct inside the White House—and this is possible criminal conduct that McGahn has already described in detail to Mueller's investigators. Those descriptions are included in the Mueller report, which has been made public in redacted form. All of this suggests that Barr's DOJ is creating, out of whole cloth, reasons McGahn shouldn't testify, simply because the White House wants to avoid a bad news cycle if and when McGahn tells his side of the story during televised congressional committee hearings.
The Department of Justice now operates as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Trump White House and Trump's reelection campaign. That's an American crisis that the press should be shouting about—loudly.
Eric Boehlert is a veteran progressive writer and media analyst, formerly with Media Matters and Salon. He is the author of Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush and Bloggers on the Bus. You can follow him on Twitter @EricBoehlert.
This post was written and reported through our Daily Kos freelance program.