In the Dark Times

Understanding a Critical Four Weeks of History
11 January 2019, Brazil, Sao Paulo: Dark clouds are moving over the Brazilian metropolis. This week there were floods in some districts due to heavy rainfall. Photo: Andre Lucas/dpa (Photo by Andre Lucas/picture alli... 11 January 2019, Brazil, Sao Paulo: Dark clouds are moving over the Brazilian metropolis. This week there were floods in some districts due to heavy rainfall. Photo: Andre Lucas/dpa (Photo by Andre Lucas/picture alliance via Getty Images) MORE LESS
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Over the last three weeks a series of events have taken place which may seem individual but need to be viewed in a joined context. Together they’ve put us in a much different, darker place as a country. I think many of us sense this intuitively. I see it in public reactions. I see it in your emails but more as an attitude. But what it is needs to be sketched out explicitly and seen for what it is.

Back on March 24, Attorney General Barr released his initial letter, the clear purpose of which was to hide the findings of the Mueller probe and issue a unilateral exoneration of the President. President Trump picked up the ball and ran with it. More than Trump’s personal lawyers or the White House Counsel’s Office, Barr was operating as Trump’s personal lawyer and advocate. Wednesday he went up to Capitol Hill and intentionally validated the conspiracy theories about Deep State “spying” on the President’s 2016 presidential campaign. He then caveated and quibbled and danced around the wording to provide some veil of plausible deniability. But his intention was clear. He also explained that he is on his own going to review whether laws were broken (whether the President’s campaign was “spied” on) during the election. There was already an Inspector General’s probe into just this question. Another is underway. Barr provided no rationale for launching this new probe, apparently under his direct control, other than his belief that something may have been amiss and his desire to do so.

Also on Wednesday, Secretary Mnuchin replied to House Ways and Means Chairman Neal refusing to provide the President’s tax returns to Neal’s Committee. It was no secret that the quest for the President’s tax returns would generate a court fight. But Mnuchin’s letter was telling. He invoked a series general areas of concern but no specific legal argument in a way that suggested very little concern for or interest in the actual law and statute. The truth is the law in this case is really pretty clear and dispositive. In constitutional terms, the Congress’s standing and need is equally clear. But in Mnuchin’s letter and other comments from administration officials and actions over the last week, the White House has made pretty clear they don’t care about that. The House just isn’t going to get Trump’s tax returns, period. Either it’s none of Congress’ business or the question was “litigated” in 2016: the bottom line, it’s not going to happen.

The big picture here is that President Trump now has lieutenants in place who will much more freely bend the powers of the state to defend his personal interests. Some of this is simply the shake-out of the 2018 election. Congress was supine for two years and either ignored presidential law-breaking or oversight or actively worked to cover for the President. Now you have a House focused on oversight. So we’re seeing more specifically and concretely how the President and his advisors see him as above the law and how they mean to protect him from the law.

But it’s not just that. For all his problems, which are legion, Jeff Sessions never put on a performance like Barr did on Wednesday. He didn’t make statements validating the President’s conspiracy theories. He and Rosenstein made themselves part of Trump’s firing of Comey. But Rosenstein, as far as we can tell, resisted immense pressure to throttle Mueller’s probe. I see little cause to valorize these two – especially Sessions. But they both seemed to work hard, if not always successfully, to balance Trump’s demands for obedience with their responsibilities to the law. Bill Barr is not doing any balancing. He is clearly doing everything in his power to make the President’s problems go away. President Trump has for two years been yelling “no collusion, no obstruction,” claiming he’s been the victim of a Deep State conspiracy and demanding his enemies now be investigated and punished. In the last three weeks Barr has validated one and two and announced he’s getting started on three. He’s a smart, polished enforcer for Trump and Trumpism.

This shouldn’t surprise us about Barr. He has a history of covering up investigations against Republicans and trying to gin up investigations against Democrats.

Much of the story of Trump’s first two years in office was one of Trump demanding, lashing out, insisting … but the wiring and pulleys connecting his impulses in the Oval Office to the mechanisms of the state weren’t quite in place. The government is a deep bureaucracy which generally tries to operate according to establish procedures and follow the law. Trump’s original cabinet was full of people who were by definition complicit but also resisted many of his wilder antics. Most of those people are now gone, replaced either with enablers or non-entities who don’t even have the official powers of their positions – the gaggle of ‘acting secretaries’ and lower-level appointees across the government. This isn’t to valorize the first team only to note a significant further degradation.

One of the President’s top activist supporters and the husband of his Director of Strategic Communications told us as much in February.

We also know that Mitch McConnell has spent two years greasing the skids for President Trump’s judicial appointments, a roster effectively outsourced to the Federalist Society. One Trump appointee and one Reagan appointee just last week delivered a major assist to Barr’s plan to keep any grand jury testimony in the Mueller report secret. The simple point is that there’s little reason to assume the current courts, especially the current Supreme Court, will provide any real counterweight or constraint to force the President and administration to follow the law. They’re likely to make results-oriented decisions to provide cover for the President, even with rulings that scarcely would have passed the laugh test a few years ago. There will be limits, surely. But likely only in the most extreme cases.

I wrote early in Trump’s presidency that Trump was an autocrat without an autocracy. But he was working on it.

This may all sound very pessimistic and a bit dire. But I don’t mean it that way. Or at least it’s not all dire. We’re foolish if we think wresting a country back from a slide into strongman-ism and autocracy is easy. It’s not. If there hadn’t been deep problems in our politics we wouldn’t be here in the first place. Trump is an accelerant not a cause. Had the 2018 election gone differently there’s close to no chance we’d ever see the Mueller report. We’re also not the only country facing this. It will be a long slog, in the face of people at the commanding heights of executive power who want to empower strongman-ism. On the most generous read, the angle is to stymie every investigation by running out the clock before friendly courts until 2020. It will require aggressive action from Congress (a mixed picture so far), the best lawyering in the courts but as much as anything else, perhaps more than anything else, political mobilization. I feel fairly confident this will all happen. But it won’t be remotely easy or quick.

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