For some leaders, personal responsibility in disregarding warnings of an impending pandemic that has now killed 80,000 Americans and cratered the economy might stimulate reflection about the national good. Not so for Donald Trump, whose disastrous presidency continues to capsize the democratic institutions on which we have prided ourselves.
One of those is the U.S. Department of Justice, which has now officially joined other institutions whose reputations have been destroyed by President Titanic, abetted by the sad willingness of a sorry few to carry out kamikaze runs on their own legacies in order to curry favor with The Boss. Last week's announcement by Attorney General William Barr that — lo and behold! — there wasn't a basis to convict former national security advisor Michael Flynn of the crime to which he had twice pleaded guilty didn't just take the cake. It took most of what remains of the Justice Department's credibility since the president appointed Barr to protect him from impeachment and criminal investigations.
Barr has proved to be nothing if not dutiful. Within hours of receiving but not reading a 440-page report by special counsel Robert Mueller detailing voluminous evidence of 10 separate acts of obstruction of justice by the president, Barr proclaimed that Trump had done nothing wrong. This was unsurprising, since Barr had made the same proclamation before being appointed, which was what led to his appointment in the first place.
Barr's pronouncement so distorted the facts that the famously restrained Mueller wrote to him privately to complain about it. A federal judge appointed by a Republican castigated Barr for dishonesty in terms that would have made most attorneys check their law licenses. He concluded that Barr had "made a calculated attempt to influence public discourse about the Mueller report in favor of President Trump despite certain findings in the Mueller report to the contrary." But it got worse. "These circumstances generally and Attorney General's lack of candor specifically," ruled the judge, "call into question Attorney General Barr's credibility." Barr's self-abasement repeated after the White House whistleblower, corroborated by a parade of Trump administration officials, reported that the president attempted to extort the Ukrainian government by asking it to fabricate dirt on Joe Biden through a phony "investigation" so it would receive the American aid it needed to defend itself against Russia. Nothing here, announced Barr barely minutes after hearing about the matter.
So it was hardly a shocker that even after Flynn twice admitted under oath that he had committed the federal crime of lying to the FBI, the president's loyal appointee declared that Flynn was actually innocent of the crime. Flynn, who lied to the FBI while actually sitting in the White House, did not lie to the FBI about just anything. He lied about secret discussions he had with the Russian ambassador just after the 2016 election about foreign policy "arrangements." These were discussions that on their face violated one federal law while Flynn was violating another. "A very serious crime," said the federal judge before whom Flynn pleaded guilty. "Arguably, you sold your country out. I'm not hiding my disgust or my disdain."
But last week, Barr declared that, now that he thought about it, Flynn's lies were not "material" ones. Sure they weren't: Here was Trump's top foreign policy advisor lying about his illegal contacts with the Russian government at a time when the FBI was investigating whether Trump's team had improperly coordinated with the Russians. What could possibly have been "material" about that? Barr, as deep in the tank as one can be, was ready with a line that out-Aliced Alice in Wonderland. "I wanted to make sure that we restore confidence in the system," he said.
The upshot? Flynn, who led Trump supporters in the "Lock her up!" chant about Hillary Clinton, actually committed a crime. He will now skate, courtesy of a president for whom there is probable cause that he committed a series of crimes. There's a confidence booster for you.
Jeff Robbins, a former assistant United States attorney and United States delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, was chief counsel for the minority of the United States Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. An attorney specializing in the First Amendment, he is a longtime columnist for the Boston Herald, writing on politics, national security, human rights and the Mideast.
Photo by Pawe? Czerwi?ski