After more than a year and half of running the Department of Justice as if it were President Trump’s own personal law firm, after lying to the American people about the conclusions of the Mueller Report, after stonewalling congressional subpoenas, and after doing political favors for the president’s cronies, it didn’t seem possible that Attorney General William Barr could sink any lower.
Then this month happened.
In a speech this week to a conservative college he compared DOJ prosecutors to preschoolers and said coronavirus lockdowns are “the greatest intrusion on civil liberties in American history” other than slavery. According to the Wall Street Journal, he told federal prosecutors to consider charging Black Lives Matter protesters with sedition, and explored the possibility of charging Jenny Durkan, the mayor of Seattle, with federal crimes. Weeks after the unprecedented decision by the Department of Justice to take over Donald Trump’s defense in a defamation suit — and its efforts to stop former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen from publishing a book about the former president — the department announced a dubious criminal investigation of John Bolton (that looks more like political retribution) for allegedly revealing classified information in his recent book.
But as bad as all this is, it’s his recent statements about the 2020 election that amount to Barr’s most dangerous behavior. For weeks, Trump has railed against mail-in voting with unfounded claims that it will lead to fraud and election rigging. Last week, in an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Barr took that ball and ran with it.
He said mail-in voting puts us “back in the business of selling and buying votes” and could mean "(ballot) harvesting, undue influence, outright coercion, paying off a postman, here’s a few hundred dollars, give me some of your ballots.” The attorney general is alleging without a scintilla of evidence that postal workers will sell mail-in ballots to the highest bidder.
He also made this startling assertion, “Someone will say the president just won Nevada. ‘Oh, wait a minute! We just discovered 100,000 ballots! Every vote will be counted!’ Yeah, but we don’t know where these freaking votes came from.” This is consistent with Trump’s warning that he could be ahead on Election Night, only to fall behind when absentee and mail-in ballots are counted later — and that this is somehow fraudulent.
Remarkably, after suggesting without evidence that widespread electoral fraud is coming, Barr accused Democrats of undermining the legitimacy of the 2020 election. "They are creating an incendiary situation where there will be loss of confidence in the vote,” he said.
More astonishing is that after saying he’s “not supposed to get into politics,” he added that if Trump loses reelection, “I think we were getting into position where we were going to find ourselves irrevocably committed to the socialist path." This is straight out of the Trump campaign’s talking points.
I asked Jed Shugerman, a law professor at Fordham University, if there’s ever been an attorney general as nakedly partisan as Barr. He notes that while many of America’s chief law enforcement officials have been cronies and politicos, “Bill Barr is the worst we’ve ever seen. Ever." For Shugerman what is most astonishing about Barr’s recent partisanship is how “flagrant he is." Barr is almost “parading” his behavior.
If the attorney general is this willing to violate the long-standing DOJ norm against open partisanship by the attorney general and is willing to make false claims about the security of mail-in voting, what lines won’t he cross? Would he order the Department of Justice to impound absentee and mail-in ballots? Would he send federal law enforcement to polling places on Election Day — as Trump has suggested — in a nominal effort to stop voter fraud, when the real aim is intimidating voters of color? Is there any reason to believe that an attorney general who appears to believe that he can do and say whatever he wants will show self-restraint if the results on Nov. 3 are close, or if the president makes up allegations of massive voter fraud?
It’s easy to say that Trump is the most dangerous person in politics, but so much of what he says is bluster and projection. Barr, on the other hand, understands how the levers of the federal government work, has shown every indication that he is comfortable being the most partisan attorney general in modern American history, and appears to be 100 percent shameless in working to ensure that Trump gets another term as president. That makes Barr, not his boss, the most dangerous man in American politics.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.