Authoritarian kleptocracies typically maintain a democratic facade, but the strongman and his cronies ensure that institutions ostensibly created to represent the people serve the regime instead. I’ve always thought Trump, a Dollar Store-brand Putin wannabe, is too dumb and incompetent to completely subvert our democracy to the extent more capable autocrats have achieved. But recent developments leave me less confident about the saving grace of stupidity and ineptitude.
Barr’s disgraceful handling of the Mueller report and assertions during his audition for the AG gig that the president is above the law are one example of creeping authoritarianism. But Barr’s willingness to abuse his office to eliminate Trump’s enemies is equally alarming because it’s not about covering up past misdeeds; it’s about eliminating political opposition in the future.
Senator Harris zeroed in on that during her questioning yesterday when she asked Barr whether anyone in the White House had asked or suggested that he open an investigation into someone. Barr flopped around like a beached cod in response, as he did when Harris’s questioning revealed he hadn’t bothered to examine the underlying evidence in the Mueller probe before embarking on a PR blitz to clear Trump. The latter got more attention, but the former may be even more important.
A Times article published yesterday evening outlines what may be an opening salvo in the Trump regime’s effort to discredit political opponents ahead of the 2020 election:
Biden Faces Conflict of Interest Questions That Are Being Promoted by Trump and Allies
WASHINGTON — It was a foreign policy role Joseph R. Biden Jr. enthusiastically embraced during his vice presidency: browbeating Ukraine’s notoriously corrupt government to clean up its act. And one of his most memorable performances came on a trip to Kiev in March 2016, when he threatened to withhold $1 billion in United States loan guarantees if Ukraine’s leaders did not dismiss the country’s top prosecutor, who had been accused of turning a blind eye to corruption in his own office and among the political elite.
The pressure campaign worked. The prosecutor general, long a target of criticism from other Western nations and international lenders, was soon voted out by the Ukrainian Parliament.
Among those who had a stake in the outcome was Hunter Biden, Mr. Biden’s younger son, who at the time was on the board of an energy company owned by a Ukrainian oligarch who had been in the sights of the fired prosecutor general.
Josh Marshall picks up the story at TPM and explains how it relates to Barr:
Rudy Giuliani, the President’s personal lawyer has been meeting with Ukrainian officials repeatedly and dangling the possibility of better relations with President Trump if they will reopen the investigation into the Hunter Biden-affiliated company. Let’s repeat that. The President’s personal lawyer is going abroad and using the lure of better treatment from President Trump to get them to reopen an investigation that could damage the man who is possibly Trump’s presidential competitor next year.
That’s not all.
Giuliani and Trump have asked Attorney General Bill Barr to get the material Ukrainian prosecutors have assembled and start his own investigation in the US.
That would explain Barr’s hemming and hawing in response to Senator Harris’s pointed question about investigations. Marshall also says Giuliani has visited other foreign capitals over the last 18 months, allegedly on private business. We have no idea what offers he’s dangled or threats he’s made on Trump’s behalf.
As we know, House Republicans held the Benghazi show trials with a single goal in mind: discredit the eventual Democratic Party nominee. Their efforts fell flat because there was no there there. But House Republicans did manage to surface the private email server issue. So, with an assist from a hostile foreign power, malefactors and egomaniacs in the FBI and an irresponsible Beltway media, the Benghazi effort succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.
The use of US foreign policy to reward allies for aiding the POTUS in domestic politics represents a significant escalation, as does deploying the federal law enforcement apparatus to clear the field of rivals. Trump telegraphed a corrupt willingness to engage in such activities during the 2016 campaign, from “Russia, if you’re listening” to “Lock her up.”
But now he and his minions have the full resources of the United States government at their command and are using it to consolidate political power, which makes the following statement from Barr during yesterday’s hearing unbearably ironic:
“We have to stop using the criminal justice process as a political weapon.”
As always, every accusation is a confession in Trumpland.
So, where do we go from here? Now that the Trump administration has declared itself above the law and not subject to checks and balances, now that one half of Congress has thrown in its lot with this particular kleptocrat and authoritarian wannabe, it’s hard to see a way forward that doesn’t involve impeachment hearings.
Sure, it’s politically risky. It might not even work as a tool to compel production of evidence and appearances before committees since Trump has stocked the judiciary with lackeys who may be willing to rule that the US Constitution doesn’t say what it clearly says.
But given the stonewalling on House investigations, the alternative may be to let this massive and compounding abuse of power stand and hope that there’s enough of a democratic framework left in November 2020 to clean house then. I’m not confident that will be the case, especially in light of this bogus investigation involving Joe Biden. Are you?