The look on Sen. Cory Booker’s face told us what the next five minutes were going to be like for William Barr. After just one question from the colleague and presidential primary rival sitting to his immediate left, it seemed the New Jersey Democrat had to muster every bit of his strength to keep his eyes from popping out of his skull. Something approximating an “Oh, shit!” was undoubtedly in his throat, trapped by decorum. Watching on television, it was tempting to enjoy this.
Sen. Kamala Harris repeated her question at Barr’s request:
“Has the President or anyone at the White House ever asked or suggested that you open an investigation of anyone? Yes or no, please, sir.” This should have been easy, but Trump’s attorney general obfuscated and fell apart from there.
Choosing not to waste her time with theatrical condemnations or scolding, the former California prosecutor was surgical in her questioning, revealing that Barr hadn’t even reviewed special counsel Robert Mueller’s evidence, himself, before he made the decision not to charge President Trump with obstruction of justice. We already knew that Barr had misrepresented Mueller’s findings in his four-page letter to Congress. And that he’d misled lawmakers by playing dumb when he’d been asked if Mueller’s team was satisfied with his summary of their investigation. And that he’d caped for Trump, both in writing and in person. Now we learned that Barr hadn’t bothered to even perform the basic functions of his job.
— CSPAN (@cspan) May 1, 2019
Then again, that might seem shocking if one thought his real job was Attorney General of the United States.
Like any good employee, Barr had been hired for his experience. Yes, he had been Attorney General during the George H.W. Bush administration. But back then, Barr helped complete the cover-up of the Iran-Contra affair, insulating Bush by orchestrating pardons for former Reagan officials.
As if auditioning for his current post five months prior to Jeff Sessions’s resignation, Barr wrote a 20-page memo that critiqued the Mueller investigation as “fatally misconceived.” What you saw Wednesday was less Barr combusting on Capitol Hill than him completing a job that he’d been assigned. Where a normal person might have been distracted by Barr’s conspicuous incompetence, Trump likely saw obsequiousness. For someone who considers “loyalty” and “obedience” to be synonyms, Barr’s performance probably earned a slow clap.
People like James Comey can write all the lamentations they want for the William Barrs of the world, who seem to inexplicably lay reputations, built over decades, at the feet of men like Trump. But is Barr, whose first cover-up remains infamous, someone to shed tears over? I recommend that Comey save his garment rending for folks who truly give a damn about being good people, folks who cannot march into a courtroom and announce to a judge or jury that a crime is excusable because the perpetrator was “frustrated.” That is the legal defense Barr continues to offer for Trump’s obstruction of justice, as if that theory could be found in any law book that actually exists.
Barr wears the title of attorney general much like Buffalo Bill wore the skin of his victims in The Silence of the Lambs. It is a dead costume that will never look real, no matter how intricately he stitches it together for public view. Considering their current occupants, neither the presidency nor the attorney general’s office are positions we are bound to respect. But we are stuck with Barr’s theory of power, as long as a sycophantic Senate is controlled by Republicans.
For Democrats, demanding that Barr resign may play well with the cable news shows, and with the voters who like to see favorite politicians mark their territory, but it will get nothing done. And as much power as Congress may have to investigate, condemn and even impeach, they can’t incarcerate anyone outside of the Capitol jail.
I don’t know Trump and don’t care to, but I’d wager good money that prison is one of the few forms of humiliation that keeps him up at night. And while facts like the ones Harris brought to light may ultimately prove useful, Wednesday’s episode doesn’t bring this administration meaningfully closer to the kind of accountability that justice demands.
This is how the system works for a man like Barr, who apparently can lie to a group of senators without consequence. (It makes one question his value as a witness.) He will likely report to his office in the morning without fear of censure, much less removal from office.
The president — who reportedly loved Barr’s combativeness because this trait ranks highly on Trump’s metrics for loyalty and manliness — will probably tweet to his heart’s delight, painting the senators whose oversight Barr brushed off as traitors while they all ignore the signs of forthcoming foreign election interference. Nothing will change when administration figures know that no one will lose their job or go to jail. Their pride can be hurt, but true embarrassment is a rumor to these people.
This is not to denigrate the efforts of senators like Harris and Booker, who took the process seriously and served the public in their time allotted. But stop with this nonsense and take a vote on who wants to see the president fired. Get senators on the record. Practice on Barr if you want. Our political system could once rely upon shame to keep misbehavior in check, to a degree. But the Trumps and Barrs of this new age have an immunity to this emotion. They have set us along a path toward an utterly corrupt and unaccountable leadership. We’ll stay there as long as public servants in the House and Senate limit their demands for impeachment to tweets and press releases, and we citizens remain content to be entertained by our leaders dunking on authoritarians in a hearing.