Attorney General William Barr told CBS that he sees “no evidence” that his boss, President Donald Trump, is “shredding our institutions.” In fact, Barr argued, it’s actually the backlash to Trump that’s challenging the country’s system of government.
That’s a creative interpretation from a man who is becoming famous for creative interpretations. Just like Barr’s interpretation of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report – no obstruction of justice charges, so case closed – it lays no blame or culpability at Trump’s feet, and completely ignores how the President has invited fights with the other branches of government and repeatedly tested the balance of power.
There’s a reason why people are routinely using the term “constitutional crisis” in the Trump era. Everything Trump does seems designed to stress the system, stoke conspiracy theories and divide the country.
Here are a few examples of how the President has challenged US institutions:
Trump has alleged voter fraud where there was none, spreading mistrust of US elections
Trump is halfway through his term, and he apparently remains convinced that millions of people voted illegally – and that they all opposed him. There’s no evidence to back this up, but that hasn’t kept him from using the government to chase ghosts and investigate it.
He set up a commission to get to the bottom of it and even installed Kris Kobach, the former Kansas secretary of state, who has long pushed these allegations, as a vice chair. But the panel quietly disbanded without finding proof of anything, and although they said there was evidence of voter fraud, they didn’t provide any. That hasn’t stopped Trump from making voter fraud allegations and warning about it, as he did in 2018, and will surely do again.
Trump has spread the conspiracy theory that there is a deep state inside the bureaucracy
Trump is convinced that there’s a deep state of entrenched bureaucrats set on his destruction. Yes, there are career civil servants who have broken with the President. Is there a coordinated effort to bring him down? There’s no evidence of this. And if there is, it’s not very effective. But the end result is that Trump’s supporters are even more distrustful of the government apparatus their tax dollars pay for.
Trump has undermined the FBI
It’s important that Americans have faith in the justice system and respect for laws. People need to follow laws, and the justice system might put them in jail if they don’t. But Trump’s fixation on the ideas that the FBI spied on him and that the Russia investigation was politically motivated – though there’s no evidence for either – makes people doubt that any part of the government can be free of politics. That’s a dangerous precedent.
Trump has treated the country’s lawyers as his own
Barr hasn’t helped alleviate Trump’s undermining of the FBI or the Justice Department by appearing to act as the President’s lawyer more than the country’s.
The original sin of Barr’s predecessor, Jeff Sessions, who endured more than a year of open ridicule and firing threats from Trump before finally leaving his job last year, was that he recused himself from the Russia investigation and allowed Mueller to be appointed as special counsel. Trump viewed that as a betrayal and appeared to have no compunction about publicly complaining about his own Cabinet official.
The irony here is that Sessions was one of Trump’s earliest political supporters. Barr, who is now blocking for Trump, was not a public Trump supporter in 2016. History may view him as one of Trump’s most loyal defenders, however, and he has taken the Justice Department down the path with him.
Trump has trashed US intelligence agencies
The entire US intelligence community, including Trump’s appointees, says Russia attacked the US election in 2016. Trump won that election, so he’s been fighting the idea and downplaying it since he took office. He also questioned the US intelligence assessments of Iran and North Korea. He dismissed, in a fantastic public rebuke, the CIA’s conclusion that Saudi Arabia’s Prince Mohammed bin Salman was involved in OK’ing the murder of US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
That’s not to say the US intelligence community doesn’t make mistakes. It’s just not usually publicly at odds with the US President.
Trump has attacked the courts
Trump hates to be questioned and he hates to lose in court. He’s personally attacked individual judges and broadly attacked the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes the entire West Coast. He’s threatened to break up that judicial circuit.
He’s said courts ruling against his Muslim ban were putting the country at risk and has complained about setbacks for his immigration policy. The disagreements between President Barack Obama and the Supreme Court over the Citizens United decision upending decades of campaign finance law – including the episode when Justice Samuel Alito mouthed “not true” during a State of the Union address after Obama criticized that decision – seem tame in comparison.
Trump has tried to spend money without Congress
The Constitution gives the power of the purse to Congress. But when both Republican- and Democratic-controlled Congresses denied Trump money for his promised border wall, he declared a national emergency to take the funds anyway. That’s a fight that will now move to the courts, but it proves he’s willing to challenge the norms of American government: that the President and Congress have to compromise.
This is not simply a partisan standoff, by the way, or Republicans would have funded the border wall during Trump’s first two years in office, when they were in charge of the House.
Trump has hidden his business interests
Trump is the first modern President not to release his tax returns. He made a political bet that Americans didn’t care that much and it paid off. However, that means that we don’t have a full view of his interests. When he complains that the Fed won’t lower interest rates, is that because he cares about the economy, or because he wants to pay less interest on the likely more than $1 billion he personally owes banks? We can’t know for sure.
When he vows he has no business interests in Russia, can we trust him? We wouldn’t have to if he made his business more transparent.
Trump has pushed nationalism at the expense of US alliances
Trump’s not afraid of the word “nationalist.” He embraces it. A lot of people associate it with governments like Germany in World War II, and for good reason. But Trump sees his role as putting American interests first even if it means some economic pain for Americans. Trump’s nationalist agenda is larger than the economy, however. For the past several generations, really since World War II, the US has been the world’s strongest free and open market and society.
Trump has challenged the notion that the US should be a world leader by pulling out of trade deals and the Paris climate agreement, questioning NATO, taunting the G7, upending the Iran nuclear deal and more. He’s befriended strongmen in North Korea and the Philippines and has started trade wars with the biggest US trade partners.
So what is Barr trying to do?
Barr could look at any of these episodes, but he was arguing that he’s more interested in trying to calm the partisanship down, even if his actions to downplay the Mueller report have ultimately pushed Democrats further toward impeachment.
Barr’s efforts to protect the presidency, and by extension Trump, have undoubtedly damaged his reputation as a straight shooter in Washington, and it was in that context that he made the comments about Trump not shredding institutions.
The entire quote is worth reading. It came after he said he doesn’t mind the damage to his reputation because he’s not concerned about people singing “Homeric odes” to him.
Barr: I’d rather, in many ways, I’d rather be back to my old life but I think that I love the Department of Justice, I love the FBI, I think it’s important that we not, in this period of intense partisan feeling, destroy our institutions. I think one of the ironies today is that people are saying that it’s President Trump that’s shredding our institutions. I really see no evidence of that, it is hard, and I really haven’t seen bill of particulars as to how that’s being done. From my perspective the idea of resisting a democratically elected President and basically throwing everything at him and you know, really changing the norms on the grounds that we have to stop this President, that is where the shredding of our norms and our institutions is occurring.