Bill Barr's Misconduct Should No Longer Shield Trump
In the days since Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg unveiled his office’s 34-count indictment of Donald J. Trump, arguments over about the likelihood of conviction have erupted on every cable news program, as the former president spews fusillades of lies and threats.
Most of this noise is pointless and hardly worth engaging. The only opinion that matters may someday be announced by a jury foreperson in a court of law.
Yet there is one defense of Trump, repeated even by people who aren’t his sycophants, that does demand closer examination – the claim that Bragg, a local prosecutor, shouldn’t bring charges that the Justice Department already rejected.
To establish that Trump committed felonies, they note, Bragg must prove that he not only concocted fake business records to cover up hush-money payoffs to adult film star Stormy Daniels, but that he intended to conceal violations of federal campaign or other laws. And they will say that the prosecution of presidential campaign finance crimes is usually the responsibility of federal law enforcement agencies.
That rationalization elides the central question: Why should Trump escape accountability for the same crimes that sent his former attorney and “fixer” Michael Cohen to prison? It’s a hard question to answer in a system that supposedly upholds equal justice for all.
And the canned response doesn’t hold up well under scrutiny.
It begins to fall apart when we recall that in the sentencing memorandum that urged a harsh punishment for Cohen, the Justice Department identified a co-conspirator it called “Individual-1,” a thin scrim used to disguise Trump, as the actual instigator of the payoff scheme.
It disintegrates completely when we remember who really made the decision to abandon the case against “Individual-1.”
That was William Barr, the former Attorney General who has tried to shine up the terrible reputation he earned on the job by stating the obvious fact that Trump’s claims of election fraud were “complete bullshit.” That acknowledgment of reality, no more or less than his position demanded, only serves to highlight the abject cowardice of nearly all his fellow Republicans. But it doesn’t absolve Barr of his other horrifically unethical actions in office.
According to Geoffrey Berman -- the former United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, whose office oversaw the guilty plea and sentencing of Cohen -- Barr sought to undermine any potential prosecution of Trump from his first day as attorney general in 2019. To protect Trump, he even considered overturning Cohen’s campaign-finance convictions, as the astonished Berman recounted in his memoir.
On several occasions, Barr sought to take control of the investigation. He ordered Justice Department lawyers to come up with reasons to abandon the case. He tried more than once to force Berman to drop it. When none of those tactics worked, he attempted to move the case from Berman’s office in the Southern District of New York to the Eastern District, where he evidently believed that the U.S. attorney would help him to bury it.
This kind of misconduct became a pattern for Barr when he interfered outrageously in the cases against Trump adviser and dirty trickster Roger Stone and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Infuriating career prosecutors, he behaved more like a mob defense counsel than the chief law enforcement officer, sworn to uphold the law and stand guard against national security threats. Among other things, he had Trump fire Berman and tried to replace him with a toady.
So what Alvin Bragg actually did by bringing the Trump indictment was to vindicate the constitutional system that Bill Barr corruptly sabotaged over and over again.
We must remind ourselves often that the former president, like any other accused suspect, is innocent until proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. But we should also remember what the Justice Department said about Michael Cohen in its sentencing memorandum, which insisted on a prison term despite his cooperation: “His offenses strike at several pillars of our society and system of government: the payment of taxes; transparent and fair elections; and truthfulness before government and in business.”
Those words apply with equal if not greater force to “Individual-1,” as Trump was called in that same document – and the chance to hold him accountable is at last drawing nearer.