During his otherwise subdued testimony before Congress this summer, former special counsel Robert Mueller did turn to more dramatic language when discussing one issue: Russia’s efforts to undermine American democracy.
“Over the course of my career, I’ve seen a number of challenges to our democracy. The Russian government’s effort to interfere in our election is among the most serious,” Mueller said in his opening statement. “This deserves the attention of every American.”
Well, two Americans who have decided to give it their attention are Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr. But instead of trying to stop such efforts, their plan is quite clearly to use the power of the United States government to cover up the Russian conspiracy — and intimidate any law enforcement officials who might feel the urge to fight similar criminal conspiracies going into the 2020 elections.
As the New York Times reported late Thursday, the Justice Department, which Barr took over after Trump ran out previous Attorney General Jeff Sessions for failing to fully evacuate himself of all remaining traces of integrity, has opened a criminal investigation into the origins of the Russian investigation run by Mueller.
Remember this: Mueller uncovered a vast Russian conspiracy that pulled off something the Watergate burglars never could. Russians or their allies successfully stole information from Democratic Party officials that was used to bolster conspiracy theories that eventually cost the Democratic nominee the election. Mueller also discovered that Trump knew about this conspiracy, encouraged it publicly, and attempted to get involved but apparently failed —probably because the Russians concluded he was unreliable, and involving him was more trouble than it was worth. Mueller also discovered that Trump conducted a lengthy campaign to cover up the Russian conspiracy, resulting in a list of 10 incidents that, if Trump were not protected by his office, could result in federal charges of obstruction of justice.
Just because the Mueller investigation is over doesn’t mean Trump’s efforts to cover up for Vladimir Putin’s campaign against democracy have ended. On the contrary, the obstruction of justice campaign has expanded. Now, under the guidance of Barr, it’s being run by the Department of Justice itself.
It’s quite clear what’s going on here. Barr almost certainly doesn’t really believe that DOJ officials, under Mueller’s guidance, broke any laws in investigating the Russian criminal conspiracy or Trump’s efforts to protect it. Instead, by opening this phony investigation, he intends both to shore up Trump’s conspiracy theories claiming that the Russia scandal is all a Democratic hoax, and to use the threat of criminal charges to intimidate any government officials who might have a hankering to protect the 2020 election from any future such conspiracies, involving the Russians or anyone else.
There’s good reason to fear this phony investigation could lead to human rights abuses. Both Peter Strzok and Andrew McCabe were fired from the FBI as part of Trump’s efforts to shore up his conspiracy theories denouncing the Russia investigation. Both men are no doubt aware that Trump may seek seeking to arrest them under false pretenses, as part of his scapegoating campaign.
Another interesting point here is that Barr is doing is exactly what Trump, using the threat of withheld military aid, tried to force Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to do: Open up a phony investigation in order to smear Democrats and deny that the Russian government was behind the criminal attack on the 2016 election.
The difference is that Zelensky resisted, even under great pressure from the twin threats of soldiers dying and the possibility of further Russian invasion. Barr, on the other hand, is choosing to be a scumbag of his own accord, using lies and threats of imprisonment to intimidate those who would stand up for democracy.
(It’s worth noting here that Barr takes time out of his busy schedule of undermining democracy to give lectures implying that societal morality is being undermined by adults having consensual sex in the privacy of their own homes. I’d call him out regarding his hypocrisy around Trump, but it’s safe to say the president’s thing isn’t consensual sex. Sexual assault probably falls right into what Barr calls the “customs and traditions which reflect the wisdom and experience of the ages.”)
As Heather Digby Parton noted at Salon, Barr’s in this because he’s a true ideological opponent of democracy, and sees his role as continuing to promote a “long-term project to transform the U.S. into an undemocratic, quasi-authoritarian plutocracy” that goes back at least to the 1980s. In this, Barr’s views are complementary to Putin’s goal of undermining democracy around the world, in order to demoralize the hopes of Russians at home who are getting sick of living under his authoritarian rule.
Trump, on the other hand, is in this for the same reason he does anything: Pure self-interest. Why he has such unwavering enthusiasm for the authoritarian Russian government, and such eagerness to help realize Putin’s goals in the U.S., remains something of a black box. One day, perhaps, his tax returns will finally be released and shed some light on the situation. But there can be little doubt that finances have something to do with it, as Mueller’s investigation revealed. In addition, Trump clearly has the idea that discrediting the Mueller investigation, even if that means trying to prosecute former government officials under false pretenses, will help him in the 2020 election.
Ultimately, this is one more reason that Democrats should stop trying to contain the impeachment inquiry to the Ukraine scandal. After all, what Trump tried to do in Ukraine — use that government’s resources to open phony investigations of his opponents and discredit evidence of his own corruption — is the same thing he is trying to do here. The only difference is, here at home he’s succeeding. The attorney general should not be allowed to use the DOJ as a legal hit squad for the president, devoted to gutting democracy. It’s time to open an impeachment inquiry into Bill Barr, as well.