In June of 2016, former president Bill Clinton bumped into Attorney General Loretta Lynch at an airport in Phoenix. The brief social chat inspired headlines such as “Meeting Between Bill Clinton and Loretta Lynch Provokes Political Furor” (New York Times) and “Democrats Groan After Bill Clinton Meets Loretta Lynch” (Politico). From the standpoint of today, these stories read almost as fantastically naïve dispatches from a distant realm.
What’s interesting about the stories is that the assumption was embedded so deeply into the coverage that none of the parties actually spelled it out. Democrats like Senator Chris Coons worried the meeting “doesn’t send the right signal,” not needing to actually say what it signaled because it seemed so obvious. The controversy at the heart of the incident was the fear Lynch had compromised the Department of Justice’s insulation from political interference by meeting the husband of the subject of an investigation. Nobody actually believed Lynch was directing the FBI to go easy on Hillary Clinton. Indeed, the FBI was operating wholly independent of Lynch, who took enormous care not to apply the slightest bit of pressure to the bureau as it decided whether or not to charge her.
The ethic of avoiding political interference was like the ocean, and the players on all sides were like the fish. Everybody on all sides treated this ethic as sacrosanct to the principle of law and order. Only from the standpoint of today, when we are all flopping around on dry ground, can we look back and notice it used to be wet.
Trump’s stated view of the subject of DOJ independence is very clear: He does not believe it should exist, or that it ever has. From Trump’s cynical standpoint, previous attorneys general served as personal lawyers for presidents, opening investigations of their opponents and closing them of their friends. Trump “said he wanted an Attorney General who would protect him the way he perceived Robert Kennedy and Eric Holder to have protected their presidents. The President also said he wanted to be able to tell his Attorney General ‘who to investigate,’” according to the Mueller report.
Trump’s evident satisfaction with the work of Attorney General William Barr is itself evidence that Barr is politicizing the department. But recent days have supplied a flurry of evidence of the progress of Barr’s work to this end. It has gone much farther, much faster, than even his critics feared. The Justice Department confirmed it has opened a special channel for Trump’s personal lawyer to funnel oppo about opposing candidates, a privilege not available to other candidates. It suddenly renounced its own sentencing recommendation for Trump crony Roger Stone after Trump complained about his proposed sentence, prompting all four prosecutors on the team to resign. Barr ousted the U.S. attorney for Washington, D.C., and replaced her with a loyalist. NBC reports these moves are, according to several sources, part of a plan to “take control of legal matters of personal interest to President Donald Trump.”
Trump himself is not exactly denying the accusation that Barr is “taking control” of cases Trump is invested in. Indeed, he is not treating it as an accusation at all, but as an achievement. “Congratulations to Attorney General Bill Barr for taking charge of a case that was totally out of control and perhaps should not have even been brought,” he tweeted this morning. “Evidence now clearly shows that the Mueller Scam was improperly brought & tainted. Even Bob Mueller lied to Congress!”
When Trump finds some new norm or law to batter down, usually most conservatives pretend it didn’t happen, while a hardy few of his most loyal acolytes venture out into the new terrain of actively defending him. Eventually, the rest of the tribe joins along. The pattern seems to be holding here. Most conservatives are silent about Trump and Barr’s ongoing Roy Cohn–ization of the Department of Justice. A few especially devoted Trumpists have decided it is not only fine but downright swell:
Barr has stripped away so many layers of insulation that it is difficult to identify what is even left of the old order. Suppose Barr were to bump into Rudy Giuliani’s wife at the airport — ignore the fact that Giuliani happens to be between wives at the moment — and have a short chat about something other than the ongoing investigation into her husband. Would Republicans complain, the way Democrats complained about Lynch and Clinton? Would Democrats even complain? Would the story even register at all?