As we approach July 4, our nation faces many difficult problems. A pandemic has infected millions, killed almost 130,000 people, and devastated the economy. George Floyd’s death thrust systemic racism, police violence, and Confederate images into public discussion. Our country will resolve these issues because our very survival as a democracy depends on doing so.
One issue presents a more fundamental, deeper threat to our democracy. The Constitution places checks and balances on each branch of government. The president, with the cooperation of the attorney general, is trying to remove all limits on the actions of an out-of-control presidency.
Attorney General William Barr is acting as the president’s personal attorney to push an authoritarian agenda. His actions threaten the independence of the Department of Justice. They challenge the rule of law and trample on the constitutional mandate for separation of power among the three branches of government. The head of the Office of Legal Counsel under Ronald Reagan said, “If you’re having trouble distinguishing Mr. Barr’s vision of the presidency from the rule of a king, you’re not alone.”
From the start, Barr used his office to shield higher-ups from exposure for criminal conduct. His first stint as AG under President George H.W. Bush was marked with controversy: Conservative columnist William Safire called Barr the “cover-up general” for “burying” incriminating evidence against a half-dozen Reagan officials in the Iran-Contra arms deal. Barr reprised that sordid act in 2019 with a whitewash of Trump’s role in withholding aid to Ukraine in exchange for trumped-up dirt on Joe Biden’s son.
Barr has earned his reputation for being Trump’s personal lawyer. His actions as AG support Trump’s absurd statement that he “has an Article Two where I have the right to do whatever I want as president.” Let’s look at his record for running interference on Trump’s behalf.
In March 2019, the Department of Justice reversed its opinion on Obamacare to match Trump’s. In May, 2019, Barr blocked Justice Department attorneys from answering subpoenas from the House Oversight committee as it was investigating Trump’s desire to add a citizenship question to the census. His attempts to thwart legitimate congressional oversight led to his being held in contempt of Congress.
His contempt for equal justice contributed to the chain of events leading to the present Black Lives Matter protests. In July, 2019, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights division recommended prosecuting New York police officer Daniel Pantaleo for choking Eric Garner to death. Barr overruled the decision and stopped the case from going forward. But he was all in on allowing Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to feed information to Justice with unsubstantiated “information coming out of Ukraine” on Biden’s son.
Earlier this month, protesters were peacefully assembled in Lafayette Square when the president decided he needed a photo-op in front of St. John’s Church. Barr ordered those protesters removed by force. The White House press secretary said Barr gave the order. A few days later, he denied having given that order.
As far back as the time of Washington, inspectors general monitored improper activities in government. President Trump isn’t happy about his own actions being reviewed. Over a 6-week period, he fired five IG’s. Michael Atkinson was handling the whistleblower case that led to Trump’s impeachment. Trump fired him in April. Barr declared Atkinson’s firing was the “right thing to do.” The IG responsible for oversight of the multi-trillion dollar pandemic relief package was booted out of office; $500 billion in small-business loans remain unaccounted for. The Health and Human Services IG was fired for reporting on shortages on PPE. The State Department IG was investigating Mike Pompeo’s alleged abuse of power before he got the axe.
Barr fired Geoffrey Berman, US attorney for the Southern District of New York. Earlier this year Trump offered US Attorney for DC Jessie Liu a top job in Treasury. No sooner had she resigned as US Attorney for DC to accept the offer, Trump pulled her nomination. Barr replaced her with a lawyer who represented Mar-a-Lago in a lawsuit. Berman ran afoul of Trump’s ire for his office’s investigations into Giuliani and Trump’s tax returns. Liu earned his enmity by not indicting Andrew McCabe, who was investigating Trump’s connections with Russia.
These events point to three disturbing aspects of Trump’s and Barr’s conduct: Trump desperately hopes to escape the scrutiny of federal investigators; Barr is his willing tool in suppressing them. Trump callously retaliates against those whom he thinks oppose him; Barr is his accomplice. Trump is not above violence against Americans exercising their First Amendment rights, as witnessed in Lafayette Square; Barr gave the orders. Bill Barr is a lieutenant in Trump’s march toward an autocratic presidency putting itself above the rule of law. They both need to go. The future of our democracy is at stake.
We still have the power to choose our futures. We can acquiesce in the certain slide into autocracy a second Trump term will surely bring. We can elect to step in a different, less certain direction, one offering to restore government of the people, by the people, and for the people. As for me, I’ll take my chances on the possibility of a brighter future.
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Mitch Edelman, vice chairperson of the Carroll County Democratic Central Committee, writes from Finksburg. His column appears every other Tuesday. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.