Attorney General William Barr has ignored subpoenas requesting his testimony before Congress and been held in contempt of Congress for ignoring those subpoenas. But yesterday Barr finally sat down before the House Judiciary Committee to deliver live testimony under oath.
If you watch a lot of congressional hearings (and congratulations to those who do not), the thing that likely struck you was how quickly this much-anticipated event reverted to the familiar melodrama of so many other congressional hearings.
Democrats, who are in control of the Judiciary Committee, made soaring speeches about the rule of law, and tacked on a couple of questions at the end. Republicans made craven speeches in hopes of a presidential retweet. And Barr answered what questions he liked, ignored what questions he didn’t like, and generally stalled or obfuscated during the brief moments representatives stopped speechifying long enough for him to say anything.
This was congressional theater in its purest form, with all sides (Democrats, Republicans, and Barr) trying to score “points” for some nonexistent scorekeeper. Liberal Twitter erupted with praise for particularly incisive speeches from Democrats. White-wing Twitter expressed glee every time Representative Jim Jordan speed-talked a Republican conspiracy theory into the record. Cable news hosts graded the effectiveness of particular representatives. The only thing missing was Jeff Probst handing out immunity idols to the participants.
I found the entire display disgusting. We are in a fight to preserve our democracy from authoritarian brutes who think the rule of law does not apply to them. Barr is one of the chief brutes. He was finally compelled to sit down and testify to his brutishness under oath. Yet this five-hour episode of “Big Obvious Lies” is all the elected representatives of the democracy he wants to destroy had for him? The same everybody-gets-to-play format that witnesses have so easily conquered in the past? The same political speeches? The same bickering with an off-screen time-lord decreeing whose turn it is to hold the conch?
Barr is directly responsible for organizing pardons or reduced sentences for Trump’s political friends, while plotting retribution against former Trump associate Michael Cohen, who eventually came clean. He’s directly responsible for teargassing peaceful protesters outside the White House so the president could have a photo-op. He’s directly responsible for pushing out a prosecutor who may have been investigating crimes committed by the Trump family. Barr lied about the Mueller report and continues to spread lies and misinformation about Russian interference in elections, mail-in voting, and the administration’s attempt to suppress the Black vote. He is currently leading investigations into Trump’s political rivals, and, as a close confidant of the president, likely has firsthand knowledge about whether Trump has any plans to use federal troops either to steal the election or remain in power after he loses. At this point, there is nary a crime nor an abuse of power committed by this administration that doesn’t deeply involve Bill Barr.
Maybe that was part of the problem. Barr’s ledger is bloated with threats to democracy, and the Democrats in Congress tried to touch on all of them instead of homing in on a couple of key transgressions. But “he who defends everything defends nothing.” By taking a survey approach to Barr’s abuses, Democrats didn’t trap Barr into any particular failure that might get him impeached if Trump wins or jailed if Trump loses. Again, the goal seemed to be to score talking points, instead of, I don’t know, bringing a dangerous threat to democracy to justice.
To be clear, Republicans were worse. The Democrats had better “points,” for whatever that is worth. But just because Republicans have already sold out the country’s democratic traditions in hopes of stealing another election doesn’t mean they get a pass for the total dereliction of their oaths of office to uphold the laws. The Republicans could care about election integrity and the rule of law and pardoning cronies too. They have just decided not to as long as a Republican is in the White House. There were Roman Praetorian guards who were less slavishly devoted to authoritarian strongmen than the modern Republican Party.
The Barr hearing failed for the same reason so many other responses to Trump’s rule have failed: Everybody behaved normally. And Barr was able to eat normally for lunch (even though, in a moment of pettiness masquerading as strength, Chairman Jerry Nadler briefly denied Barr actual lunch). For all of Barr’s faults, he’s not a dumb man. He is a smart, highly skilled lawyer. You can’t question him like a “normal” person; he’s too good at answering questions. He listens carefully. He doesn’t say more than he has to. He’s an expert at saying what he wants to say instead of what the questioner wants him to say.
You can’t come at a lawyer of Barr’s caliber with politicians. As was discussed at great length during the Mueller hearings, a lot of congresspeople fancy themselves excellent questioners, and many of them were once practicing lawyers and have legal training. But few of them have experience asking probative legal questions of a hostile witness, and almost none of them can do it well under time pressure. Listening to Congress asking Barr questions was like listening to the best person at your office karaoke party try to sing a live duet with Adele. It sounds neat for a few bars, but quickly becomes embarrassing and painful and you just want someone to set fire to the rain.
One might have hoped that congressional Democrats had learned their lesson from the Mueller hearings, but no. They left their most effective lawyers, like Daniel Goldman, on the bench and instead went back to the normal process of having politicians ask open-ended questions without a full command of which facts Barr would try to lie about. The Democrats questioned Barr the same way they might have questioned a misbehaving corporate executive; at one point, Nadler told Barr, “Shame on you,” as if Trump administration officials were capable of feeling shame.
With our democracy at stake, I would not have let Barr walk out of that hearing a free man. Barr was held in contempt of Congress and has been sued for his role in ordering peaceful citizens to be teargassed. The country would be safer with Barr behind bars. I’d have had the Capitol Police or Congress’s sergeant-at-arms arrest him and throw him in a basement of the Capitol, pending a trial for his suspected crimes. If Trump wanted to free his henchman, he’d have to order federal troops to storm the rotunda. Barr would do it for Trump. But with Trump, loyalty is a one-way street. I think Trump would opt for a “very strong, very powerful” tweet storm instead of a Civil War. Trump keeps talking about himself like he’s Abraham Lincoln. I’d demand a receipt.
Of course, the Democrats would never arrest Barr; that would be abnormal. Fox News would run some kind of “alert.” Tom Cotton would accuse Democrats of “rebelling” without keeping the good parts, like slavery. David Brooks might finally write a column about something other than whether people like reading his columns.
Nobody showed up at the hearing ready to stop Barr. Elected officials continue to talk about Trump and his administration like it’s a unique threat to American democracy, but they never do anything abnormal or unique to stop him. That was the Barr hearing in a nutshell: some speeches, some clips for TV, but nothing risky or defiant or desperate. Nothing from Congress came close to matching the intensity, creativity, or courage we’ve seen from ordinary citizens who are under attack from Barr and the Trump administration.
The latest polling average has Joe Biden up by about eight points over Donald Trump in a general election. That’s good news, so long as Bill Barr allows us to have an election.