By all outward appearances, the White House believed President Trump would benefit politically from the end of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
After the investigation came to a close without a big indictment charging Trump’s associates for conspiring with Russia, his closest advisers celebrated ostentatiously. Apart from insisting dishonestly that Trump had been completely exonerated, they hugged for the cameras and swigged champagne, seemingly relieved that their legal nightmare (or at least this legal nightmare) was behind them.
But Trump abruptly cut the party short with a stunning decision to make it the official position of the Justice Department that the entire Affordable Care Act is invalid, and that the courts should throw it out.
The development befuddled the political establishment, including many Republicans, who wondered why Trump would interrupt his own victory lap by replacing “No Conspiracy” headlines with a renewed threat to strip tens of millions of people of their health care.
Reporters quickly learned that Trump made the call at the behest of his chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, over the advice of his new attorney general, William Barr, which left the impression that Trump had been led astray politically by an ideologically fanatical aide. At this point Trump has humiliated and abused so many top officials that few remain who aren’t fanatics of one kind or another.
But a more plausible explanation has taken shape in the weeks since Mueller transmitted his report to Barr, and it’s one that should alarm everyone who isn’t enthusiastic about Trump’s lawlessness. What if it wasn’t the attrition of moderating voices from his administration that drove Trump to take such a damaging and aberrant step, but the addition of a new enabling one—the Roy Cohn figure he’s been yearning for since he came to power?
Barr is the common thread connecting the deceptive propaganda of Trump’s non-exoneration exoneration, and the administration’s abdication of its duty to faithfully defends the laws of the United States—even ones Trump doesn’t like. The former required Barr to usurp Congress’s role as the proper arbiter of Trump’s non-prosecutable misconduct, the latter required him to subvert his own institution, and both required him to serve Trump personally, instead of the United States. Barr plainly relished the abuses of power, even if he notionally disagreed with the strategic wisdom of making frivolous arguments in court.
But Trump has never wanted for advisers who hate Obamacare and help him conceal his wrongdoing. What he lacked before was an attorney general who was as enthusiastically contemptuous of the rule of law as he is, and willing to compromise the ideal of non-partisan law enforcement on his behalf.
Trump has spent the entirety of his presidency bumping up against institutional restraints, determined to jump them.
The notion that the conservative establishment had erected guardrails around Trump by putting “adults in the room” with him is an artifact of the transition, when Trump had little real discretion over who would serve in his White House and cabinet. Trump undertook basically no preparation for the presidency, so when he won the election unexpectedly, he had no choice but to defer to his party, which promised to provide his fledgling administration a thin veneer of competence.
Within hours of his inauguration, Trump’s basic unfitness for office had overwhelmed these functionaries, many of whom were less “adults in the room” than opportunists who hoped to milk their fiefdoms for all they could—to advance Trump’s racist, kleptocratic agenda, while keeping a foot planted within the political elite, where they expected to return eventually.
Ousted Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen is the two-faced poster child for these “adults,” none of whom are in the room anymore. Her presence like theirs wasn’t much of a restraint at all. Nielsen ripped migrant children from the arms of their parents and placed them in makeshift jails where more than one of them died. Trump lost faith in her not because she wasn’t willing to disgrace herself (she lied under oath to Congress, and committed crimes against humanity that will make traveling abroad a dicey proposition for the rest of her life), but because she wouldn’t defy court orders and black-letter law.
Trump purged Nielsen and the rest of her department’s senior leadership reportedly because he became convinced that more committed, less careerist officials would help him assert dictatorial power. But it’s hard to fathom that Barr’s arrival and his demonstrations of loyalty had nothing to do with the decision. Trump could have made his move at any time, but he did it now at the worst possible time for disruption, for a reason.
It’s possible that Barr will draw the line at Trump’s suggestion that border agents ignore immigration judges, but we can’t blame Trump for thinking otherwise.
Having declared Trump’s legal innocence and concealed the Mueller report for him, Barr has now turned his talents to providing the administration flimsy legal cover for violating the law that requires the Treasury Department to turn Trump’s tax returns over to Congress. He appeared before the Senate Wednesday to claim Obama administration officials had engaged in “spying” on the Trump campaign, and now threatens to take punitive action against them.
The political establishment’s hope that Barr would serve as a new adult in the room to replace departed ones was always misplaced. He first gained notoriety as the George H.W. Bush attorney general who completed the Iran Contra coverup, and came to Trump’s attention by writing an unsolicited memo that disparaged the Russia investigation and asserted presidents can’t obstruct justice in the course of their official conduct. In between he worked in private practice, but also seems to have allowed conservative propaganda to rot his brain. In 2017 he emailed New York Times reporter Peter Baker to declare, “I have long believed that the predicate for investigating the uranium deal, as well as the [Clinton] foundation, is far stronger than any basis for investigating so-called ‘collusion,’” which is something only a person overfed on a diet of Fox News would say. Reviving the debunked SPYGATE conspiracy theory is no different, except he now controls the Justice Department where he can substitute Trump’s ravings and lies and authoritarian predilections for the rule of law.
Trump has noticed, and is adjusting to a new, less constrained, far more dangerous phase of his presidency.