Regardless of whether Attorney General William Barr was ever a “respectable” political figure, plenty of powerful people seem to have held him in such regard.
If Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) was one of those people, she’s not anymore. On Wednesday, she lamented the degree to which the attorney general has allowed himself to be co-opted by President Trump. “The American people know that you are no different from Rudy Giuliani or Kellyanne Conway or any of the other people who sacrificed their once decent reputation for the grifter and liar who sits in the Oval Office,” she told Barr during his appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Full exchange between Senator @maziehirono and Attorney General William Barr: "You did exactly what I thought you'd do, it's why I voted against your confirmation. I expected you would try to protect the president and indeed you did." pic.twitter.com/5ecg4jF2b2
— CSPAN (@cspan) May 1, 2019
Hirono spent most of her allotted time reviewing the extent of Barr’s “deep involvement” in covering for the president, from misrepresenting Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s findings to lying to Congress about Mueller’s objections to the “principal conclusions” of the investigation Barr released last month. Hirono’s monologue lasted more than five minutes. There was a lot of ground to cover. She attempted to close with a few questions for Barr, but committee chairman Lindsey Graham (R-SC) interrupted her, accusing her of slandering Barr. “I do not think that I’m slandering anyone,” Hirono replied. “Mr. Chairman, I am done. Thank you very much.”
Barr is of course not the only political figure to have prostrated himself before Trump. Pretty much everyone to have served in his administration — as well as most Senate Republicans, none more so than Graham — have tarnished their legacies by catering to the increasingly demented whims of a serial liar and conman who at the very least has trampled over his constitutional duties as president, and at the most is guilty of a host of federal crimes.
The question that has perplexed Americans for the past two years regarding these figures is…why. Why have they decided to hitch their careers and their dignity to a man doing all he can to destroy the institutions they ostensibly entered public service to protect?
Just as Barr was in the middle of his testimony on Wednesday, the New York Times published an op-ed by former FBI Director James Comey, who offers an interesting explanation. “How could Mr. Barr, a bright and accomplished lawyer, start channeling the president in using words like ‘no collusion’ and F.B.I. ‘spying’?” asks Comey, who was fired by Trump in May 2017, thus triggering the special counsel investigation. “And downplaying acts of obstruction of justice as products of the president’s being ‘frustrated and angry,’ something he would never say to justify the thousands of crimes prosecuted every day that are the product of frustration and anger?”
Drawing from his experience working closely with Trump, Comey provides something of a step-by-step timeline of how this could happen. “Accomplished people lacking inner strength can’t resist the compromises necessary to survive Mr. Trump and that adds up to something they will never recover from,” he explains.
First, he writes, they are silent when Trump lies, which in effect makes them complicit in the lying. “I must have agreed that he had the largest inauguration crowd in history because I didn’t challenge that,” Comey says. “Everyone must agree that he has been treated very unfairly. The web building never stops.”
Second, they display “personal fealty” in public, such as during Cabinet meetings. Why? Because everyone else is doing it, and because Trump demands it. “You praise, while the world watches, and the web gets tighter,” says Comey.
Third, they stand by idly as Trump attacks the “institutions and values you hold dear.” Maybe they want to say something, maybe they are bothered, but they rationalize doing nothing because he’s the president. They tell themselves they must stay in place and weather the storm in order to protect the institutions under attack. This line of thinking was also detailed, famously, in the op-ed an anonymous senior administration official wrote for the Times last year. “We believe our first duty is to this country, and the president continues to act in a manner that is detrimental to the health of our republic,” the author wrote. “That is why many Trump appointees have vowed to do what we can to preserve our democratic institutions while thwarting Mr. Trump’s more misguided impulses until he is out of office.”
But, as Comey notes, to take this position requires them to be a part of Trump’s team, which requires more compromises, which pile up far faster than whatever marginal work they think they’re doing to “save the republic.” Before they know it, they’re perjuring themselves on his behalf, or worse, as Barr now seems to have done in the wake of Mueller’s investigation.
“And then you are lost,” Comey concludes. “He has eaten your soul.”