The Attorney General of the United States has revealed the contours of a shocking plan to deploy the federal government’s law enforcement powers, and exploit the U.S. court system, to bolster President Trump’s re-election campaign, and even help him retain office against the will of national majorities.
This scheme, which they have begun to carry out already, was the most important upshot of Bill Barr’s long-overdue testimony before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, and easily divined from the statements he made under oath. That it didn’t loom large in national media is a consequence of journalists approaching the event not to pinpoint and amplify the most newsworthy disclosures, but to convey how watching the hearing felt—a wholly subjective experience colored by the jading effect of repetition, and the pressures members of the political press corps feel to avoid the appearance of bias.
Those who didn’t or couldn’t watch the hearing live will thus learn that its defining quality was “a thick fog of partisan bickering” in which “Democrats tried to portray [Barr] as a dangerous errand boy for the president” while Barr “insisted he was trying to enforce the law against what he characterized as rioters using demonstrations as cover to commit crimes.” In other words: that the hearing did not advance our understanding of America’s political reality at all.
In reality, it provided the clearest confirmation yet of what many of Barr’s and Trump’s staunchest critics have long suspected. And both Democrats and the general public will suffer if they assume based on these news reports that the hearing was useless partisan spectacle, freeing Barr and Trump execute their scheme without sustained scrutiny.
Across several disjointed lines of questioning, Barr revealed that he and Trump, along with other cabinet secretaries—who are supposed to run federal agencies in the public interest—discuss the election as a matter of course. He acknowledged that he has assumed the role of deciding where to deploy paramilitary forces to stoke violent conflict with protesters, in service of Trump’s campaign message. He asserted that he intends (or at least hopes) to release a propaganda report in the coming weeks, in defiance of DOJ policy against meddling in elections. Most alarmingly, he promised that he (and only he!) would leave office if the results of the election are “clear,” but only after stipulating that he and Trump will question the results of any election in which larger-than-normal numbers of people vote by mail and that he won’t hesitate to throw the weight of DOJ behind Trump if he tries to enlist the justice system to throw out ballots rather than concede defeat.
Stripped of most critical gloss, here’s Barr in his own words:
- He said, “it shouldn’t be a surprise that the topic of the election comes up” in conversations with Trump, and that his role is to paint a legal sheen on federal-agent deployments—i.e.“to pick the cities based on law enforcement need and based on neutral criteria”—that just happen to hit the largest cities in the swing states of Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
- As part of his ongoing efforts to help Trump portray the Russia investigation as the outgrowth of a partisan plot against him, Barr said he wouldn’t hesitate to release a report on his Russia counter-investigation, despite DOJ policy against making investigative and prosecutorial decisions that might sway an election, because “any report will be in my judgment, not one that is covered by the policy.”
- Asked what he would do if Trump refused to accept the outcome of the election, Barr allowed that “If the results are clear, I would leave office.” But the implication that he will not leave office if the results are unclear practically becomes a statement of intent in the context of his earlier claim that “if you have wholesale mail-in voting, it substantially increases the risk of fraud.”
- He reserved the right to intervene in the ballot-counting process at Trump’s request, including under the color of state law, saying in familiar Republican euphemism, “I’m not going to give up whatever ability we have to ensure the integrity of the election…. I will follow the law, if a state has a law that says, ‘It has to be cast on election day,’ that’s the law. That will be enforced.”
So there’s the plan: manufacture as much propaganda for Trump’s campaign as possible ahead of the election, then use police power and the justice system if at all possible to overturn or call into question the will of the people.
That these admissions have not generated a steady din of outrage, culminating in Barr’s recusal from all election-related matters, if not his resignation, is a testament to how successfully Barr and Trump have reduced public standards of official conduct, and twisted the idioms of blind justice into something like the opposite of their intended meaning. Four years ago, a chance airport encounter between Bill Clinton and then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch yielded an immediate consensus that Lynch had committed a serious breach of public trust by not refusing to engage in conversation with the former president. Now, Barr can openly discuss his intent to subvert the rule of law and democracy on behalf of Republican partisan interests, and it registers in news accounts only as “a thick fog of partisan bickering.”
As dangerous as Barr is, his scheming with Trump shouldn’t draw Democrats into a panic. Trump’s and Barr’s efforts to gain partisan advantage by abusing police power and trampling constitutional rights have backfired thus far. Just as Trump’s 2018-vintage abuse of military power to gin up white panic over “caravans” of migrants traveling toward the southern border didn’t help Republicans avoid a midterm landslide, his determination to ignore the pileup of genuine crises the country faces, and inundate Americans with manufactured ones instead, won’t necessarily help his party’s cause, and may actively harm it. The same logic extends to whatever else Trump and Barr have in store. Nearly everything Trump associates himself with soon becomes toxically unpopular, and we should expect that pattern to apply to any “report” Barr issues in bad faith, and any attempt he makes after the election to disenfranchise millions of voters. Trump may even be so widely loathed that the results of the election will be clear on election night, despite a pandemic-induced surge in mail voting, and Barr will fall back. Either way, there is no scenario in which Barr and Trump try to junk millions of ballots without triggering a mass revolt. Their thinking is premised on the very high likelihood that Trump loses both the national popular vote and the swing-state vote, but that the latter margin may be close enough to nullify through lawfare or brute force. If this thinking becomes widely understood before the election, it could fuel enough turnout to spoil their plans, or discourage Barr and Trump from fomenting a legitimacy crisis, or both.
But the press won’t spread word of this brewing crisis on its own, at least not on the basis of a single, cacophonous hearing, which is why Democrats should treat it as the starting point of their oversight obligations rather than the end of them.