“The president’s friends don’t deserve special breaks, but they also don’t deserve to be treated more harshly than other people,” referring to his interventions in the criminal prosecutions of Roger Stone and Michael Flynn.
William P. Barr, Attorney General of the United States.
I spent the afternoon of Tuesday, July 28 before the TV and the computer screen watching, with growing unease, Attorney General William Barr’s appearance before the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee. I was reminded of my first consuming interest in the public spectacles of America’s blood sport, politics.
During Easter school break in April 1954, the notorious U.S. Senate’s Army-McCarthy hearings were subject to live television coverage, the first time the public was let inside such hearings by the advent of emerging TV reporting. Senator Joseph McCarthy and Chief Committee Counsel Roy Cohn, who later became a trusted counsellor to like-minded Donald Trump, leveled unverifiable and meritless accusations that the U.S. State Department housed a nest of subversive communist sympathizers. McCarthy and Cohn’s falsehoods were discredited before millions of public viewers and McCarthy was later censured in the Senate. (To his embarrassment in his subsequent public life, a young Robert F. Kennedy accepted McCarthy’s appointment as assistant counsel to the committee. His father, Joseph Kennedy, was a McCarthy supporter.)
One cannot forget the Army’s lawyer, Joseph Welch, smoothly squashing McCarthy’s pretended integrity and exposing his faithless attacks: “…You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
Alas, no such brilliant performances and little melodrama during Barr’s televised testimony, notwithstanding the strident and contested political partisanship of everyone involved. For his public performance, Barr adopted the costumed countenance and Solomonic mask of the wise and independent professional adjudicator: he was restoring the rule of law in America. Under Barr, one form of justice for all was to be re-established for White, Black, Latino and Brown, for rich and poor, without fear or favour, and certainly without consideration for preferences, prejudices and the political interests of the President.
Barr projected his views with the benign countenance of a self-assured and all-knowing elder. He attempted to submerge his arrogance while displaying complete confidence in the cosmic correctness of his deep-rooted and unwavering beliefs. He remained stone-faced when presented with facts he rejected as truthful. He expressed facial displeasure while videos were played of federal military forces aggressively and harshly suppressing civilian protesters within the United States. He described the protests as “mob violence” of “extreme violent groups” with an “anarchic temperament.” In Barr’s interpretation of events, there was no doubt that federal military forces were required to be mobilized and deployed against an uprising U.S. citizenry. A federal militarized crackdown to quell the protests in Portland, Oregon, was unquestionably justified.
Barr proudly defended the use of federal military forces in Portland and other cities. The civilian protests in Portland were, in Barr’s words, “… by any objective measure, an assault on the government of the United States.” He denied racial prejudice and injustice in the police, and he used statistics unfairly to allege that “police are less likely to shoot a black suspect, a little more likely to shoot at a white suspect.”
Barr allowed sly grins to surface on the periphery of his lips when he thought he had scored against the Democrats.
Affronted by allegations of partiality and that he was undertaking Trump’s bidding and administering justice for partisan political reasons, Barr aggressively attacked his accusers. He called the Democrats to account for unfairly trying to discredit him.
Barr denied he followed Trump’s tweets. He testified that Trump had never spoke to him about criminal prosecutions. Barr swore that his personal interventions in the prosecutions of criminal charges against Michael Flynn and Roger Stone were required to uphold the rule of law. His unsolicited interventions with career federal prosecutors in those cases, he said, were not in order to help Trump’s supporters. “The president’s friends don’t deserve special breaks, but they also don’t deserve to be treated more harshly than other people.” He declared: “There was no basis to investigate Flynn.”
Calmly and with aplomb, Barr deflected, ignored or refused to answer most Democrats’ questions to explain the rationale for his decisions as Attorney General. He ducked the issue of why he fired Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman. Barr denied that he interfered in Berman’s investigations, which included inquiries related to Rudy Guiliani and the laying of criminal charges against two of Giuliani’s Ukrainian associates. Barr only allowed that he had “raised questions on certain matters” with Berman and his office.
Barr claimed that there was “extreme rioting” in Washington’s Lafayette Square. He denied that there was any police assault on the protestors or that tear gas or similar compounds were used (in fact, pepper balls and smoke bombs were discharged to remove that afternoon’s peaceful gathering). The civilian protesters in Lafayette Square were advised, he testified, that the perimeter around the White House would be expanded.
He denied that the clearing of a walkway from the White House to St. John’s Episcopal Church for Trump’s photo opportunity with bible in hand had anything to do with the concurrent police actions. He openly chuckled when he compared the clearing of civilians from Lafayette Square to the situation of the U.S. military’s WWII invasion of then Japanese controlled Philippines. The invasion of the Philippine’s had nothing to do, he said, with providing an historic opportunity for General Douglas McArthur to be famously photographed wading onto the beach in pursuit of a U.S. military victory. Similarly, the clearing of Lafayette Square, Barr testified, had nothing to do with Trump’s walk to St. John’s Episcopal Church minutes thereafter.
Barr expressed concerns that foreign actors might manipulate voting by mail and that universal mail voting created the risk of substantial fraud.
Barr initially refused to acknowledge that it was illegal for the President to solicit or accept foreign assistance in a presidential election. Barr concocted an evasive response aimed to avoid an answer: “It depends on what kind of assistance,” he slyly invoked with a small Cheshire smile. Incredulous at Barr’s support of Trump’s earlier statements that he would accept foreign assistance in the presidential election, the Democrat challenged Barr to repeat his answer. Caught prevaricating with truth and avoiding clear law, Barr became solemn and shifted his tone of voice. In a lowered and moderated tonality and with eyes sheepishly avoiding his questioner, Barr was forced to admit: “No, it’s not appropriate.”