It’s no fun being right about how Trump’s authoritarian dispositions will play out when his back is against the wall. As Paul Waldman points out, things could get much, much worse.
So get ready. Trump is going to order the Justice Department to launch an investigation of his opponent — probably more than one — and Barr will likely do so eagerly. It doesn’t matter how trivial the substance is, as we learned in 2016 when the fact that Hillary Clinton used the wrong email became the dominant issue of the campaign. Did Elizabeth Warren shake hands with a guy whose cousin’s neighbor dated a mobster? The Justice Department will investigate. Did Bernie Sanders have a congressional intern whose police officer dad fixed a parking ticket for him? The FBI is on it. Did Kamala Harris prosecute someone whose lawyer’s husband got a state contract? Investigations are ongoing.
Republicans will cry that whatever it is, it’s the crime of the century. The federal investigations will give it the patina of legitimacy, and the media will dutifully cover it with all the speculative insinuation they can muster. (“Questions are being raised,” after all.) And it won’t just be the Justice Department — rest assured, right now in the White House they’re working hard to figure out how the entire government can be put to the task of reelecting Trump.
As I said, previous presidents have done that in small ways with limited effects. But Trump’s corruption, his lack of concern for laws and norms, his contempt for the very idea that the federal government exists for a purpose other than to serve him — all of these are already more than apparent. And we haven’t yet seen how far he’s willing to go to retain power.
Assume for a minute that the guardrails hold—that even Barr will balk at the use of outright authoritarian tactics to win an election. Maybe Barr things that bog-standard Republican voter suppression is one thing, but show trials are a bridge too far.
The problem is that, as long as the Trump administration refuses to comply with effective oversight, there’s no way to know if it is using more subtle abuses of executive power to tilt the scales. And there’s no way to know at which part of the chain of command Trump is being thwarted.
But, per Waldman, there’s no reason to believe that Barr has a problem with abusing executive power for political gain. He already did it with the Mueller Report. He already did it with Iran-Contra. And it is not at all implausible that he’s already doing it via probing the origins of the Russia investigation—the only part of the Mueller Report that Barr apparently won’t accept “as the factual record.”
Barr has already gone out of his way to feed the right-wing conspiracy theories alleging an Obama (or “deep state”) attempt to derail Trump without cause, even if it means making obviously bad faith arguments to the Senate about the meaning of the term “spying.”
We’re watching this strategy unfold in real time. Bloomberg reports that:
Barr’s review could get a boost after a report by the New York Times on Thursday that the FBI sent a trained investigator to London in 2016 to pose as a research assistant and probe Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos over possible campaign links to Russia.Trump’s re-election campaign quickly seized on that report as evidence that the FBI did spy on the Trump campaign. “As President Trump has said, it is high time to investigate the investigators,” Brad Parscale, Trump’s campaign manager, said in a statement.
During the Senate hearing, Republicans enthusiastically encouraged Barr to push deeper into the origins of the Trump probe.
Senator John Cornyn told Barr, “It appears to me that the Obama administration, Justice Department and FBI decided to place their bets on Hillary Clinton and focus their efforts” on investigating the Trump campaign.
This article, by the way, showcases the failings of the media when it comes to reporting on these matters. The New York Times report does not provide a “boost” to Republican accusations. The events happened after the FBI opened its probe and, as the Times notes:
The decision to use Ms. Turk in the operation aimed at a presidential campaign official shows the level of alarm inside the F.B.I. during a frantic period when the bureau was trying to determine the scope of Russia’s attempts to disrupt the 2016 election, but could also give ammunition to Mr. Trump and his allies for their spying claims.
Ms. Turk went to London to help oversee the politically sensitive operation, working alongside a longtime informant, the Cambridge professor Stefan A. Halper. The move was a sign that the bureau wanted in place a trained investigator for a layer of oversight, as well as someone who could gather information for or serve as a credible witness in any potential prosecution that emerged from the case.
I know that the bloggers here, like pretty much everyone who doesn’t support Trump, are split over the merits of impeachment. But it’s difficult to see what other course of option the House has available. At the very least, impeachment proceedings would turn public attention to the details of the Mueller Report and to broader malfeasance (or stonewalling) by the Trump administration.
Keep in mind that only something like 3% of people polled say that they’ve read the whole Mueller Report (and 10% say “some”). I suspect the real number is lower, and composed entirely of high-information voters and political junkies. Democrats cannot assume that voters understand precisely what Mueller found. As Aaron Blake argues at the Washington Post, Barr’s gambit worked. It served Trump’s interests by sewing confusion about the contents of the report.
Finally, we know what kind of campaign Trump will run. We know the free media time he will get. We know how his message will be amplified. We know the advantages the president has in communicating with the American people.
Given all this, I’m increasingly of the mind that impeachment hearings are unlikely to better motivate the Republican base or contribute to polarization. What hearings do is give constitutionalists a platform that can compete with Trump’s steady stream of disinformation. From a purely tactical standpoint, they also relieve the Democratic nominee of the burden of educating voters on Trump’s abuses of his office.
Should Democrats start with Barr or go directly to Trump? As far as I’m concerned, that’s the issue that is fast eclipsing the “whether impeachment” question.