Over the last 24 hours, two events took place that will probably loom very large over the next 18 months. The first was an exchange between Senator Kamala Harris and Attorney General William Barr at a hearing yesterday. “Attorney General Barr, has the president or anyone at the White House ever asked or suggested that you open an investigation of anyone?” asked Harris. Barr stammered, asked Harris to repeat the quite simple question, and then began parsing. “I’m trying to grapple with the word ‘suggest,’” he told Harris. “I mean, there have been discussions of matters out there that they have not asked me to open an investigation, but …” before trailing off ominously.
The second is a strange, somewhat convoluted but highly significant report that appeared last night in the New York Times. The story simultaneously reports on efforts by Trump loyalists to gin up dirt on Joe Biden and Ukraine, while also conveying the dirt itself. Put aside the substance of the reporting for a moment; what matters is that this is a bright flashing signal of where Barr’s fearsome powers may be directed next.
Trump has always demanded an attorney general who will act as his personal sword and shield. In Trump’s highly transparent mind, the two roles are inextricably linked. He is almost incapable of proclaiming his own innocence without immediately segueing to the alleged guilt of his enemies. He must be cleared, and his rivals must be investigated.
The Mueller report’s section on Trump’s many attempts to get the Department of Justice off his back incidentally describes his repeated efforts to sic it on his rivals. The president’s frustration with Attorney General Jeff Sessions consisted in almost equal measure his recusal from the Russia probe and his failure to follow through on Trump’s promises to lock up his opponents.
Sessions did not refuse Trump’s demand altogether — he simply dissolved them into pro forma bureaucratic measures. In November 2017, he ordered up a review of the department’s handling of the Russia investigation and various accusations against Clinton. Sessions asked the U.S. Attorney in Utah, John Huber, to look into Trump’s allegations.
Apparently these activities were little more than spinning of wheels in an effort to placate Trump with the appearance of activity. But it’s hardly safe to assume that he can be put off in this fashion forever. Trump fired Sessions and replaced him with an attorney general who has given every appearance of satisfying Trump’s demands. Trump “has told those around him that, after being disappointed by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, he has found an attorney general loyal to him,” reports the Associated Press, in one of the more chilling lines to appear in the news in some time.
One direction the loyal AG is obviously heading is yet another investigation into the origins of the Russia probe. At Barr’s hearing, Republican senators devoted most of their time to repeating wild allegations about the Russia investigation as deep state coup. The FBI has become in the right-wing mind “unelected progressive elites” nefariously seeking to reverse the 2016 election out of pure coastal elitist hatred for Trump and his voters. Barr has promised more counter-investigations of the FBI’s investigation of Trump. At both this hearing and the previous one, Barr — who has maintained a studious neutrality about Trump’s multiple demonstrated offenses — casually prejudged the outcome, telling Congress the FBI’s conduct disturbed him.
A second direction for Barr’s investigatory powers is now coming into view. As Hillary Clinton’s value as a foil has receded, Trump has taken aim at the candidate he sees as his most likely and formidable threat: Joe Biden. The new Times story describes both the connections between Biden and Ukraine, and Trumpworld’s efforts to criminalize them.
The evidence for the former is extant, but thin: Hunter Biden has legally but somewhat sleazily traded on his father’s name through various investment and consulting arrangements. One of those dealt with Ukraine, which involved his father during the Obama presidency, because Biden senior demanded the firing of a Ukrainian prosecutor who “had been accused of turning a blind eye to corruption in his own office and among the political elite.” It happens that this corrupt prosecutor had targeted a client of Hunter Biden’s. That is a conflict of interest, though Joe Biden’s only “crime” was opposing a corrupt figure who his administration would and should have opposed anyway.
The far greater evidence of misconduct lies in the other half of the story. The Trump administration is pressuring Ukraine to advance the case specifically in order to smear Biden. Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s attorney of sorts, has discussed the case with both the ousted Ukrainian prosecutor and his successor. “He met with the current prosecutor multiple times in New York this year,” reports the Times. “The current prosecutor general later told associates that, during one of the meetings, Mr. Giuliani called Mr. Trump excitedly to brief him on his findings, according to people familiar with the conversations.”
The context for this revelation is another story the Times broke last year, and oddly fails to mention in its latest report. That story revealed that Ukraine had ceased all cooperation with the Mueller probe — which of course had as one of its central subjects of inquiry Paul Manafort’s work on behalf of Russian-backed parties in Ukraine. The Ukrainian government had been helping to expose Manafort’s corrupt schemes, but abruptly halted its efforts when the Trump administration offered military help. That story clearly suggested a straight trade, in which Trump gave Ukraine missiles in return for Ukraine helping Trump block the Mueller investigation.
The new report fits right into line with this interpretation. Having first helped Trump by shutting down its probe of Manafort, now Ukraine is helping him find some mud on a likely opponent. (Again, for Trump, the offensive and defensive abuses of justice are inextricable.)
Republican media have already laid the predicate for an investigation. John Solomon, a vessel for Republican leaks, published a long story last month suggesting Ukrainian prosecutors were sitting on a trove of evidence of Democratic misconduct they were eager to share with American counterparts. A week ago, Trump excitedly told Sean Hannity that Barr was investigating “big” and “incredible” allegations from Ukraine.
It would hardly be a shock if all this came to nothing. Maybe Barr is mollifying Trump more cleverly than his predecessor, pretending to launch politically motivated investigations of Trump’s preferred targets that will spin their wheels and go nowhere.
But the events of the last month give little comfort to the presumption that the rule of law is safe from Trump’s predations. Every step Barr has taken indicates the meeting of the minds with the president is a genuine one, and that he has taken up his role as the president’s Roy Cohn out of real conviction. The Republican Party has embraced wholesale the president’s claim that he has been vindicated on his alliance with Russia and his efforts to block the probe thereof. What reason does Trump have to doubt that they will stand behind him if his loyal AG turns the federal prosecutorial apparatus against his enemies?