The 2020 election is going to be ugly in many different ways. If you thought Donald Trump ran a rancid campaign when he was trying to make it to the White House, just you wait until he’s fighting to preserve his power. It has been obvious for some time that President Trump is planning to promote hatred and division, but one thing we haven’t yet focused on is how he will use the resources of the federal government to make sure he wins reelection.
We got a hint of it Wednesday when Attorney General William P. Barr testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) asked Barr, “Has the president or anyone at the White House either asked or suggested that you open an investigation of anyone?”
Barr reacted as though she had asked him to calculate the speed of light in nanometers per second in base 8. He sputtered a bit, asked her to repeat the question, repeated it himself, then gazed off into the distance, prompting Harris to say, “It seems you’d remember something like that,” which indeed you’d think he would. After musing for a moment on the nature of word “suggest,” Barr gave no answer.
Which suggests the strong likelihood that the actual answer is “yes.” And it wouldn’t have been the first time. As the Mueller report states, in May 2017, Trump called then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions at home to try to convince him not only to quash the Russia investigation but also to go further: “According to Sessions, the President asked him to reverse his recusal so that Sessions could direct the Department of Justice to investigate and prosecute Hillary Clinton.”
Sessions did not comply. But do you think Trump would hesitate for an instant before telling Barr to open an investigation of the Democratic nominee for president? And given everything we’ve seen from Barr, do you think he’d refuse that order?
Trump may already be preparing to mobilize the federal government’s resources to destroy his opponent, whoever that turns out to be. The New York Times has a new piece featuring what is sometimes called an oppo drop: a news story about a politician initiated by a political rival passing damaging information to reporters. It happens all the time, and it’s not necessarily illegitimate as journalism, because the information itself may be relevant and the journalist does his or her own investigation to verify what they’ve been told.
But in this case, the Times acknowledges the story’s provenance right in the headline: “Biden Faces Conflict of Interest Questions That Are Being Promoted by Trump and Allies.”
Regular readers will know that I’m hardly Joe Biden’s biggest fan, but this story seems particularly weak in its implication that Biden did anything remotely wrong. What it comes down to is that, as vice president, he advanced Obama administration policy by pressing Ukraine to fight corruption, a perfectly worthy goal shared by lots of countries.
At the time, Biden’s son Hunter was working for a Ukrainian company called Burisma Holdings that was being investigated by the country’s chief prosecutor, who was widely believed to be corrupt. Which brings us to the most critical part of this story, how Trump is already using his office to go after Biden:
The Trump team’s efforts to draw attention to the Bidens’ work in Ukraine, which is already yielding coverage in conservative media, has been led partly by Rudolph W. Giuliani, who served as a lawyer for Mr. Trump in the investigation by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III. Mr. Giuliani’s involvement raises questions about whether Mr. Trump is endorsing an effort to push a foreign government to proceed with a case that could hurt a political opponent at home.
Mr. Giuliani has discussed the Burisma investigation, and its intersection with the Bidens, with the ousted Ukrainian prosecutor general and the current prosecutor. He met with the current prosecutor multiple times in New York this year. The current prosecutor general later told associates that, during one of the meetings, Mr. Giuliani called Mr. Trump excitedly to brief him on his findings, according to people familiar with the conversations.
Mr. Giuliani declined to comment on any such phone call with Mr. Trump, but acknowledged that he has discussed the matter with the president on multiple occasions. Mr. Trump, in turn, recently suggested he would like Attorney General William P. Barr to look into the material gathered by the Ukrainian prosecutors — echoing repeated calls from Mr. Giuliani for the Justice Department to investigate the Bidens’ Ukrainian work and other connections between Ukraine and the United States.
So what we have here is the president’s lawyer, with the direct involvement of the president himself, pushing a foreign official to open an investigation for the obvious purpose of embarrassing a potential rival, while the president is pushing the Justice Department to act in ways that could harm that rival as well.
That should be a scandal in and of itself. And I can’t say this strongly enough: This is only the beginning.
Every time a president runs for reelection, there are small ways he uses the power of his office to promote his campaign, such as taking “official” visits to swing states on the taxpayer’s dime. But those efforts are usually limited by the potential for controversy and the agreed-upon norm that there’s only so far the president should go in marshaling the resources of the federal government for his political benefit. But as we know, Donald Trump doesn’t even care about rules, let alone norms.
So get ready. Trump is going to order the Justice Department to launch an investigation of his opponent — probably more than one — and Barr will likely do so eagerly. It doesn’t matter how trivial the substance is, as we learned in 2016 when the fact that Hillary Clinton used the wrong email became the dominant issue of the campaign. Did Elizabeth Warren shake hands with a guy whose cousin’s neighbor dated a mobster? The Justice Department will investigate. Did Bernie Sanders have a congressional intern whose police officer dad fixed a parking ticket for him? The FBI is on it. Did Kamala Harris prosecute someone whose lawyer’s husband got a state contract? Investigations are ongoing.
Republicans will cry that whatever it is, it’s the crime of the century. The federal investigations will give it the patina of legitimacy, and the media will dutifully cover it with all the speculative insinuation they can muster. (“Questions are being raised,” after all.) And it won’t just be the Justice Department — rest assured, right now in the White House they’re working hard to figure out how the entire government can be put to the task of reelecting Trump.
As I said, previous presidents have done that in small ways with limited effects. But Trump’s corruption, his lack of concern for laws and norms, his contempt for the very idea that the federal government exists for a purpose other than to serve him — all of these are already more than apparent. And we haven’t yet seen how far he’s willing to go to retain power.