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 BarrTrump hasn't asked Barr to open investigation into Bidens, McEnany says Seattle, Portland, NYC sue Trump administration over threat to pull federal money Trump says he doesn't actually want Whitmer, Biden and Obama to be locked up despite chants MORE told ABC News that President TrumpDonald John TrumpIvanka Trump, Jared Kusher's lawyer threatens to sue Lincoln Project over Times Square billboards Facebook, Twitter CEOs to testify before Senate Judiciary Committee on Nov. 17 Sanders hits back at Trump's attack on 'socialized medicine' 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 BidenFacebook, Twitter CEOs to testify before Senate Judiciary Committee on Nov. 17 Sanders hits back at Trump's attack on 'socialized medicine' Senate GOP to drop documentary series days before election hitting China, Democrats over coronavirus MORE (and against Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaTrump hits Biden as 'disrespectful' to Obama Is America ready to return to the Obama-Biden foreign policy? Trump's debate performance was too little, too late MORE and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBon Jovi to campaign with Biden in Pennsylvania The Hill's Campaign Report: 2020 spending wars | Biden looks to clean up oil comments | Debate ratings are in Biden gets late boost with key union endorsement 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).  


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 StoneTrump grants clemency to five nonviolent offenders Trump remarks put pressure on Barr DOJ veteran says he's quitting over Barr's 'slavish obedience' to Trump 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. 


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.