Early in 2018, as Robert Mueller’s investigation intensified, a pitiful, angry Donald Trump cried out in desperation: “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” He longed for a legal fixer as shrewd and amoral as the late Cohn, a Joe McCarthy enforcer who was one of Trump’s political and ethical mentors, The New York Times reported. Desperate to fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the right-wing toady who mostly did Trump’s bidding but recused himself (correctly) from the investigation of Russian election interference, the cornered president couldn’t afford to jettison another law enforcement official, his political advisers said.
That November’s blue wave election swept away congressional Republicans, as well as Trump’s reservations about dumping Sessions. He quickly fired him and nominated Washington establishment figure Bill Barr as his successor. One thing that made Barr scary was the perception that the former George H.W. Bush attorney general was smarter than Trump or Sessions, admittedly a low bar. But even that’s not so obvious anymore.
Barr’s disastrous attempt at a Friday Night Massacre, firing Southern District of New York US Attorney Geoffrey Berman, blew up in his face when Berman, a 2016 Trump supporter, refused to go along with the cover story that he had resigned. That forced Barr to get Trump to fire Berman—which meant he couldn’t appoint a more pliant replacement. Berman will be succeeded by his deputy, longtime prosecutor Audrey Strauss, widely known for her independence.
Ironically, or not, one of the notches on Strauss’s belt is the successful prosecution of none other than Roy Cohn in a mob-related case.
No one can say for sure why Barr and Trump wanted Berman out. A former law partner of Rudy Giuliani, Berman seemed to run afoul of Team Trump starting with his prosecution of longtime Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, as well as his indictments of Giuliani associates Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman on charges that they illegally donated more than $300,000 in foreign money to GOP campaigns. His office was widely believed to be investigating Giuliani on related issues, particularly the trio’s attempts to coerce Ukranian officials to provide “dirt” on former vice president Joe Biden, Trump’s 2020 opponent. There were reports that his office was investigating Deutsche Bank, a longtime Trump partner. Oh, and Berman also obtained indictments against a Turkish bank that Trump wanted protected, John Bolton’s new book reveals.
Whatever the motive, the ham-handed way Barr came for Berman made sure he’ll get little or nothing of what he and his boss wanted. On Friday night, Barr announced that the White House would seek to confirm Securities and Exchange Chair Jay Clayton, a Trump golfing buddy who’s never been a prosecutor (but who did work for Deutsche Bank), in Berman’s role; until then, the acting head of the office would be another US Attorney, Craig Carpenito. But because Berman had to be fired, the job automatically goes to his deputy, Strauss. As for eventually confirming Clayton? Trump’s best Senate friend, Senate Judiciary Committee chair Lindsey Graham, said he’d defer to Clayton’s home state senators (a once-bipartisan courtesy that’s mostly gone missing in the age of Trump), Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, who want to block the move and deny Clayton a hearing.
When you’ve lost Lindsey Graham…
It’s been a terrible weekend for Trump, beyond the Berman mess. His planned Tulsa coronapalooza fizzled Saturday, in part apparently because teens used social media to scarf up tickets they didn’t intend to use. But I think it’s mainly that with coronavirus cases spiking in Tulsa, even red-state voters decided not to risk their lives for their leader. The sight of a bright blue sea of empty seats rattled Trump, according to many reports, and it should. It’s more evidence that the blue wave we saw in November 2018 could still be coming for him.
Meanwhile, as Barr has gotten more brazen in his attempts to subvert the law, he’s gotten sloppier. His four-page memo of lies about the Mueller report last year fooled too much of the media, at least temporarily. There’s been more skepticism about his shocking interventions to reduce his department’s own sentencing request for Roger Stone, and to drop perjury charges against former national security adviser Michael Flynn (though Flynn admitted the crime). Both moves resulted in career attorneys resigning and widespread criticism from the legal establishment and the media.
Then there was his decision to brutally clear Lafayette Park of peaceful protesters so Trump could have his silly Bible photo-op outside St. John’s Episcopal Church. Even the administration’s top military advisers had reservations, and Barr took command, “essentially assuming battlefield control over a hodgepodge of security forces in Washington for days from a command center he set up, according to people who received briefings inside the center,” The New York Times reported.
Barr’s decline into blatant but ineffectual lawlessness is proof that Trumpism is a degenerative disease.
It’s hard not to believe some or all of these actions merit an impeachment inquiry. But House Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler disappointed a lot of Barr critics when he seemed to take that off the table Sunday. He told CNN’s Jake Tapper that Barr deserves to be impeached, but it would be “a waste of time” since there’s no chance the GOP-led Senate would convict him.
I confess to being agnostic on impeaching Barr. On one level, you’d love to see it. He is certainly impeachable. The reality is that it’s already June 22; we’re still fighting Covid-19; there’s a rising movement against police violence; plus there is not only an imminent presidential election but also tight races for the House and Senate and to flip state legislatures. I’m not sure legislators or the media have the bandwidth. (Read my friend Will Bunch on why impeaching Barr is essential.)
I am sure that Democrats must hold hearings in which they call Berman and other US Attorneys who’ve left the Department of Justice over Barr’s political meddling. And they must pledge to continue to investigate Trump, Barr, and other administration wrongdoers, and prosecute them if indicated, even after they’ve left office. Here’s hoping that’s just seven months away.