The conventional wisdom regarding Donald Trump’s presidency is that the system works. Yes, Trump may have raged on Twitter about locking up his enemies and shutting down all the investigations, but when the smoke cleared, Robert Mueller was able to complete his work, Hillary was not locked up, and adults like William Barr were able to land the plane.
Geoffrey Berman’s inside account from the Justice Department deeply undercuts this comforting belief. Berman, who served as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York until
Barr Trump* sacked him, describes constant pressure to go easy on Trump’s cronies while bringing charges against anybody who opposed him. That is hardly a surprise; Trump blurted out his belief that the Justice Department was his personal weapon all the time, and a stream of underlings has affirmed that he made these demands loudly and repeatedly behind closed doors.
The truly novel revelations brought forward by Berman is that Trump’s pressure campaign frequently succeeded. Officials loyal to Trump successfully pressured the Department of Justice to bring charges against Gregory Craig, a Democratic lawyer, for violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Berman responded that, after investigating the matter, he believed Craig was innocent, but his deputy told him to “even things out” — a reference to previous cases charging Republicans — by indicting Craig.
When Trump began publicly demanding the Department charge John Kerry for violating the Logan Act by trying to persuade Iran not to build a nuclear weapon, Trump began publicly calling him a criminal. Trump’s demands made their way down to Berman, who was forced to investigate Kerry, and faced complaints that he wasn’t moving quickly enough.
Berman also notes that Barr’s deputies tried to remove any references to illegal behavior by Trump from the indictment of Trump lawyer Michael Cohen. Barr tried and failed to stifle the investigation into the violations of campaign-finance laws Cohen had undertaken at Trump’s behest. Trump was never charged.
What Berman reveals is that the pressure to weaponize the Justice Department against Trump’s enemies (and to protect him and his criminal friends) did not always fail, and it did not merely come from Trump himself. Barr and other officials in the Department frequently applied pressure to advance Trump’s corrupt ends. Barr successfully intervened several times to help Trump, by reducing sentences for Roger Stone and attempting to drop its prosecution of Michael Flynn.
It is true that Barr was only willing to go so far, and when Trump’s attempt to secure an unelected second term devolved into conspiracy theories so bizarre they couldn’t win a court case, Barr was ready to concede defeat. Even then, however, he left quietly and wrote an obsequious note praising Trump rather than warn the country that the president had gone stark raving mad.
Berman got his job because he had worked on Trump’s campaign. The system “worked” to the extent that Barr was less deranged than, say, a Rudy Giuliani. It did not protect either the process or the outcome of the Justice Department’s nonpolitical integrity.
What is perhaps most notable is the conclusions the relevant Republican actors have drawn from the experience. The Republican Establishment has decided Barr is a hero. Trump has decided he needed an attorney general even more loyal than Barr. And virtually the entire GOP believes the Justice Department is currently being corrupted, and that Merrick Garland is only investigating Trump’s stolen documents because Joe Biden wants to help the Democratic midterm campaign.
The system did not work under Trump. And every indication is that the next time Trump or any other Republican gains control over it, the outcome will be worse.
Correction: Barr tried to sack Berman, but Berman challenged his authority to do so, forcing Trump to officially fire him.