Only William Barr stands between Trump and the end of democracy in America

Only William Barr stands between Trump and the end of democracy in America
© Washington Post

In February, Attorney General William BarrBill BarrThe job of shielding journalists is not finished Trump called acting attorney general almost daily to push election voter fraud claim: report Highest-ranking GOP assemblyman in WI against another audit of 2020 vote MORE told ABC News that President TrumpDonald TrumpMajority of Americans in new poll say it would be bad for the country if Trump ran in 2024 ,800 bottle of whiskey given to Pompeo by Japan is missing Liz Cheney says her father is 'deeply troubled' about the state of the Republican Party MORE “has never asked me to do anything in a criminal case.” 

That was then. Last week, Trump told Barr to bring criminal charges against Democratic presidential nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden nominates Mark Brzezinski to be U.S. ambassador to Poland 10 dead after overloaded van crashes in south Texas Majority of New York state Assembly support beginning process to impeach Cuomo: AP MORE (and against Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBiden nominates Mark Brzezinski to be U.S. ambassador to Poland On The Money: Trump asks court to block release of tax returns to Congress | Private sector adds 330K jobs in July, well short of expectations Biden wishes Obama a happy birthday MORE and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBriahna Joy Gray: Progressives like Turner should reconsider running as Democrats Biden wishes Obama a happy birthday Ohio special election: A good day for Democrats MORE), in connection with the DOJ’s investigation of possible Russian collusion with the Trump campaign in the 2016 election. “Unless Bill Barr indicts these people for crimes -- the greatest political crime in the history of our country,” Trump said, “then we’ll get little satisfaction unless I win.”

The president’s demand is really the sequel to last year’s Ukrainegate. Trump then viewed Biden as the greatest threat of any Democrat to his reelection. So he threatened Ukraine, which was engaged in a proxy war with Russia, with loss of vital military aid unless its government announced a criminal investigation of Biden, and his son Hunter, in connection with Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian oil and gas company (there is no evidence that Joe Biden did anything wrong).  

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The extortion scheme nearly worked. Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky was on the verge of such an announcement in September 2019, which might have crippled Biden’s Democratic primary campaign. Then news leaked of a holdup in Ukraine military aid, followed two weeks later by disclosure of the Ukrainegate whistleblower complaint. Congress went ballistic and the scheme collapsed. 

Now that Biden is the Democratic nominee with a commanding lead in the polls, Trump seems to be trying, for a second time, to rig the 2020 election. This time he is pressuring his own government to criminally prosecute Biden in connection with the Russia investigation, despite that no evidence exists to support such charges or even to justify an investigation. Barr acknowledged as much last May by saying that, based on the “information I have today,” DOJ would not begin a criminal investigation of Biden (or Obama) concerning the Russia investigation — and no additional information has since emerged.   

When you come right down to it, Trump wants his attorney general to jail his political opponents on fabricated charges (Barr has been publicly non-committal about Trump’s demand). That’s a pretty good litmus test for identifying a dictatorship or an autocracy. The rulers of Iran, Zimbabwe, Venezuela and Cambodia, to name a few, have arrested, jailed or put their political opponents under house arrest on fake or trumped up charges, often on the verge of elections. In Putin’s Russia, to cite just one notorious example, opposition figure Alexei Navalny was jailed in 2013 and poisoned this year.

Will Barr hold the line? He certainly has demonstrated unswerving loyalty to Trump. Barr intervened in the Mike Flynn and Roger StoneRoger Jason StoneCould Andrew Cuomo — despite scandals — be re-elected because of Trump? Has Trump beaten the system? Trump is on the ballot whether his name is there or not MORE prosecutions to help these die hard Trump supporters; he made a series of misleading or baseless claims that mail voting fraud is widespread, which bolstered a Trump election theme; and he has promoted an aggressive theory of executive power that may account for why Trump says that, under the Constitution, “I can do whatever I want as president,” including intervene in criminal cases.

But bringing unsupported criminal charges against an opposing presidential candidate just weeks before an election may be a bridge too far for William Barr. It could unleash a firestorm, cause an open revolt within the Department of Justice and leave Barr with the historical reputation as the man who sacrificed 250 years of American democracy to help Donald Trump win reelection. 

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Our democracy is fragile indeed if its preservation depends on whether an appointed official like Barr has the courage to stand up to the president. Suppose Trump had nominated and been able to confirm Rudolph Giuliani as attorney general. Judging by his role in orchestrating Ukrainegate, Giuliani might have been more receptive than Barr has been (so far) to weaponizing the DOJ against Joe Biden.

If democracy in America survives Donald Trump’s presidency, it won’t be by much.

Gregory J. Wallance, a writer in New York City, was a federal prosecutor during the Carter and Reagan administrations. He is the author of “America’s Soul in the Balance: The Holocaust, FDR’s State Department, and The Moral Disgrace of an American Aristocracy.” Follow him on Twitter at @gregorywallance.