No, this is not like a pardon by other means.
The Barr Justice Department’s corrupt abandonment of the prosecution of Michael Flynn after his guilty plea is a graver threat to the rule of law than the presidential pardon we long expected.
Let me offer a quick hypothetical:
You can imagine a scenario where a rogue president makes corrupt use of his regal power to pardon but the instruments of federal law enforcement remain intact, unsullied and continue to perform professionally. In that idealized scenario, the law enforcement apparatus is still there when the aberrant president leaves office and the next administration arrives.
That is not what is happening right now.
The Justice Department is being dismantled as an independent, broadly legitimate, respected component in service of the rule of law. The damage is more far reaching and permanent than a mere pardon would have been.
A lot gets made of the Justice Department’s reputation for rectitude and professionalism and the benefit of the doubt judges accord it. It’s a bit overdone. Defense lawyers and some former DOJers roll their eyes at the department’s high self-regard with good reason. But what you purport to be, what your stated values are, what you aspire to do – those all matter, even when you come up short in the moment.
Generations of DOJ lawyers have been acculturated to those high ideals. They know and see when those ideals are being subverted. The impacts go far beyond the particulars of a given case or the tenure of a single compromised attorney general. Good lawyers leave the department, as we have already seen. Marginal lawyers cut corners, clip their wings, and acquiesce in the corruption in small, imperceptible ways. Up and coming lawyers steer clear of a hollowed-out Justice Department and the wrong kinds of people are drawn to it.
The effects are generational. The repairs to undo the damage are not swift and cannot be sped up.
Someone observed yesterday that the only remaining corrupt threshold for Barr to cross is to repurpose the Justice Department for the prosecution of President Trump’s perceived political adversaries. Ask Peter Strzok and Andrew McCabe and others who have been persecuted by this Justice Department whether that threshold has really not been crossed.