MOBILE, Ala. — Attorney General William Barr delivered a shameful performance on Thursday, just a few hours before releasing a redacted version of the special counsel’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. While the attorney general is appointed by the president of the United States, his job is to uphold the U.S. Constitution, to defend the rule of law and to see that justice is done.
That’s not what Barr did. He served as President Donald Trump’s defense attorney, standing before reporters to resoundingly proclaim the president’s innocence on charges of collusion with Russia and, further, to defend Trump’s clear attempts to interfere with the investigation as a legitimate outcome of Trump’s frustration. If the president attacked the Department of Justice and its staff repeatedly — well, he was justifiably angry about the untoward rumors swirling around his administration.
All in all, Barr’s performance was unprofessional, unsettling, precedent-setting. It was more evidence of the fragility of our democratic institutions, another reminder that the Trump administration has weakened the rule of law in ways from which the nation will find it difficult to recover.
But it’s also true that Barr’s partisan, unseemly conduct won’t matter much in the long run. The report from Robert Mueller, who conducted a nearly two-year-long investigation into Russian interference and the president’s attempts to circumvent that investigation, will be scrutinized thoroughly. There will be mounds of evidence of unsavory and unethical conduct by Trump, his family members and campaign aides.
Throughout the coming months, as the 2020 presidential campaign kicks into high gear, Trump’s rivals and critics will use information from the Mueller report to remind the public of the president’s corruption. While Mueller did not find evidence to charge Trump with conspiring with Russia to damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign, investigators have already documented that Trump and at least 17 campaign officials and advisers had more than 100 contacts with Russian nationals and WikiLeaks, or their intermediaries, before his inauguration. It is hard to escape the conclusion that Trump and his allies were eager for assistance from a foreign power.
Yet, the president’s base will be unfazed. They will accept Barr’s statements — and Trump’s — unequivocally. The president has continued his Twitter campaign of proclaiming his innocence, insisting that Mueller fully exonerated him. And Trump’s supporters, the precincts of MAGA-hat-wearing conservatives, will dismiss any allegations of suspicious conduct by the president as mere partisan sniping.
Some of Trump’s supporters have even gone so far as to declare that they see nothing wrong with Russian interference — despite the fact that the United States has considered Russia and its predecessor, the Soviet Union, a threat to democratic interests for generations. Last year, a caller to C-SPAN’s Washington Journal expressed her gratitude for interference. “I want to thank the Russians for interfering with our election, to stop Hillary Clinton from becoming president. That woman has illusions of grandeur. ... What would we do with Hillary in the White House?” Asked if she believed that Russian interference helped Trump to win, she said, “Yes.”
That is simply astounding. For all their attempts (perhaps successful) to influence the results of the 2016 presidential election, and for all their likely efforts to try to influence future elections, Russian hackers don’t constitute the greatest threat to American democracy. That C-Span caller and her ilk represent a far graver menace.
It seems that a sizable contingent of the country is perfectly willing to abandon the U.S. Constitution — to forgo all of our democratic institutions — if they don’t get their way. As long as they get to have Trump as president — with all his lies, corruption and moral indecency — nothing else matters. He indulges their wish for an era before Muslim women in Congress, before gays serving openly in the U.S. military, before a black man in the Oval Office.
Nothing in the Mueller report will stay those impulses. Our democracy is in peril — and Trump and his factotums, including Barr, are merely symptoms of the deeper infection.