The iconic image of America’s justice system is a blindfolded woman holding a scale with the inscription: Justice is Blind.
Under the Trump Administration, with attorney general Bill Barr leading the way, the Justice Department’s new motto has become “robbing Justice blind”.
William Barr, a former attorney general under George HW Bush, was the president’s choice to lead the Justice Department after President Donald Trump found Jeff Sessions too weak or principled to do his dirty work. Barr auditioned for the job by sending an unsolicited 20-page memo to the president arguing the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller was illegitimate. That was all Trump needed to hear.
His first act as AG was to totally mischaracterise the findings of the report from Mueller to the public and then hold back the release of the actual report for weeks. It had the intended effect of neutering Mueller and his team.
Since his brazenly political act, Barr has proceeded to do the president’s bidding in the case of Michael Flynn, the convicted former national security adviser, Roger Stone, the convicted political operator, as well as launching a series of investigations of the investigators who were looking at any potential crimes of president Trump.
So, he has been, in effect, acting like the president’s mob lawyer, it’s no surprise he’s now injected himself into the bizarre claims the election was stolen from the man currently in the White House. For months before the election, Barr sought to undermine mail-in voting with a series of unsubstantiated – and several that were proven untrue – claims of fraud. He was effectively setting the predicate for a challenge to the results should Trump lose.
And Trump did lose, in a big way. Joe Biden is on track to win the popular vote by millions of ballots. It wasn’t close and there is not a single piece of evidence of voter fraud. Every lawsuit so far filed by the Trump campaign considered by a judge has been thrown out of court.
But never fear, Barr is here to rescue Trump again. Yesterday he authorised Department of Justice (DoJ) prosecutors to investigate “substantial’ allegations of voter fraud. In effect, this allows prosecutors to bypass the chain of command within DoJ and bring evidence to him and his office directly.
Now, Barr covered himself by also stating that allegations should not be specious, speculative or fanciful claims. Those who argue that makes the move just a political statement – because there are no allegations that are not specious – haven’t been paying close attention to Barr.
Over the course of the last two years, seven senior prosecutors leading the Stone, Flynn and Manafort cases have resigned in protest. They all claim Barr is no longer serving the goal of justice for all Americans, rather he is doing the political bidding of President Trump. The latest resignation yesterday was longtime Justice Department lawyer Richard Pilger, who led the office overseeing cases of election fraud.
Pilger said in his letter of resignation he could not in good conscience participate in this brazenly political act. Elie Honig, a former DoJ prosecutor didn’t mince words talking to me about Barr’s latest outrage: “Barr has demeaned and degraded the Justice Department like nobody else before him. He has lied to the public, undermined his own prosecutors, and politically weaponised the DoJ, all in service of Donald Trump.”
So, what will the result of Barr’s decision on the outcome of the election? The answer is probably very little. Biden has a solid lead in both the electoral college and an overwhelming lead in the popular vote. Despite dozens of press conferences, the Trump team has not been able to document a single case of voter fraud, much less any that would turn the election.
But Barr’s announcement does have far-reaching consequences for the norms of our government, the Biden presidency and how the DoJ will be viewed going forward. Barr has made the department a political arm of the Trump campaign. That has had a profound impact – on the DoJ and on how Americans view the justice system.
More importantly, Barr has provided justification for the 70 million Americans who voted for Trump to believe the Biden presidency is illegitimate. That makes governing, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic, incredibly difficult for Biden at best. At worst, it could fuel an outbreak of civil unrest in America.
But those concerns don’t seem to bother the likes of Trump, Barr and Mitch McConnell. They view holding onto power as the only reason to be in government. And, if it means years of civil unrest and the destruction of American institutions, that’s fine with them. Or as Trump famously said: “It is what it is.”
Joe Lockhart was the White House Press Secretary from 1998 to 2000, during the Bill Clinton administration
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