Aboard a Trump Train that is hurtling out of control toward its inevitable fate — and which in June 2020 feels more like Agatha Christie’s Orient Express with its warped passenger list of muddled motives and evil intent — the mysterious midnight ouster of Manhattan’s U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman reads as the ultimate “Whydunnit?”
Everybody knows WHO wielded the ax late Friday night in a botched, messy political hit job that took nearly 24 hours to complete. That would be Attorney General William Barr, who’s taken on the role of “President Trump’s Roy Cohn” and over-the-top defender with such a zeal that even Cohn himself is looking up from the eternal fiery abyss saying, “Whoa, buddy ... slow down!”
Yet, incredibly, Barr might be able to get away with this dirty deed because the laundry list of potential Trump scandals that he could have been hoping to squelch by firing the top federal prosecutor in the president’s former home jurisdiction — in other words, the WHY of Berman’s sudden departure — is so long it couldn’t fit onto a CVS receipt. Consider the possibilities.
Was Berman’s ouster somehow tied to his ongoing investigation that already resulted in indictments of two key figures in Trump’s 2019 impeachment — the Ukrainian-American businessmen Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman — and seemed to be moving toward criminal charges against their business associate, the president’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani?
Or was there lingering anxiety over the child-sex and trafficking charges that Berman’s office brought last year against disgraced financier and one-time Trump pal Jeffrey Epstein, who then allegedly committed suicide in his federal jail cell? There’d been recent reports that Team Berman was looking at Epstein’s close pal, Britain’s Prince Andrew, whom Trump claims not to know even though they recently had breakfast together.
Or — and this is perhaps most tantalizing to the legion of Trump scandal buffs — was Berman whacked because his prosecutors were flying too close to the sun with an ongoing money laundering probe of Deutsche Bank AG, which provided hundreds of millions of dollars in dubious loans that kept Trump’s tottering business empire from collapse in the shaky 2000s and which also propped up the real estate deals of his son-in-law and top aide, Jared Kushner? (Barr and Trump wanted to replace Berman in New York’s Southern District with a lawyer who once represented Deutsche Bank ... what a coincidence, huh?)
Obstructing any of those probes would appear to be a high crime or misdemeanor ... but wait, there’s even more! What about the various probes into Trump-related criminality that sprung from the ashes of the Mueller investigation, including an investigation of large and prima facie illegal foreign donations to the president’s overstuffed 2017 inauguration fund? Or Trump’s promise to his dictator pal Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey that he would kill a probe by Berman’s team into a Turkish bank, Halkbank?
Confused? Who wouldn’t be? Distracted? Well, yeah, what with a coronavirus that’s killed nearly 120,000 as Trump admits he stalled badly needed testing to avoid bad headlines, eight-hour unemployment lines, and thousands in the streets demanding racial justice. But if America is to survive as a functioning democracy on the other side of this mess, we have to squeeze out some time for preserving what’s left of the rule of law in our increasingly authoritarian nation, and then start to rebuild it.
Since taking office for his second stint as attorney general in early 2019 (even if it feels like seven or eight years ago), Barr has politicized the U.S. Department of Justice beyond recognition, making a mockery of any and all notions of impartial justice and converting the department into a Trump-fueled engine of revenge — lying frequently along the way. Investigating and impeaching Barr ahead of the November election would be a powerful sign that the work of restoring the rule of law in America is well underway, even before the first presidential ballot is cast.
The House Judiciary Committee and its probably exhausted chair, Democratic Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York, is vowing a hearing as early as Wednesday on Barr’s latest actions, including the ouster of Berman (who, after balking at his boss’ efforts to transfer him out of New York and then correctly noting there were legal issues around firing him and unilaterally installing a replacement, agreed to resign Saturday night with a trusted deputy taking his place.) Nadler also told CNN that impeaching Barr over his misconduct would be “a waste of time.” I strongly beg to differ.
Barr has left the House with an almost Nixonian laundry list of impeachable offenses. In the Berman matter, we may not yet know exactly why he wanted the Manhattan prosecutor (who, it should be noted, was once Giuliani’s law partner and Trump supporter who himself got the job in irregular circumstances) out. But we know Barr’s actions are of one piece with his willingness to interfere in shocking and unprecedented ways in the criminal cases against Trump allies like Roger Stone and Michael Flynn — actions that caused hundreds of ex-prosecutors from both parties to call for Barr’s resignation.
Oh, and have I mentioned that Barr ordered the tear-gassing and assault on peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square to clear the area for a cheesy presidential photo op, and that he blatantly lied about his actions on national television? Using tear gas — which treaties have banned in warfare — on citizens exercising their rights of free speech and free assembly is the kind of thing we might expect from banana-republic dictatorships, not the United States. Should we really let that go unpunished?
In fact, Barr’s 16-month tenure has been marked by other episodes that would have been a major scandal during any normal administration, except that this is not a normal administration. For example, just last month it was reported that the U.S. attorney for eastern Texas was resigning after senior officials in Barr’s Justice Department had thwarted that prosecutor’s criminal probe into opioid prescription practices by Walmart, a major GOP donor.
Enough! Congress may have some important issues on its plate — topped by the desperate need to aid the millions of Americans who’ll still be unemployed as summer turns toward fall, and by the massive holes in state and local budgets — but with 435 House members there is also the ability to multitask. The House did the absolute right thing last year in taking a stand around our democratic principles and impeaching Trump, even if — as John Bolton of all people has pointed out — the two articles did not go nearly far enough. In 2020, the House can reaffirm its vows that no one is above the law — especially America’s top law-enforcement officer — by impeaching Barr.
Good government is good politics. A Senate trial on the eve of the fall political season — one in which control of the upper chamber is very much up for grabs — would put Republican lawmakers on the spot. Do they want to cast a vote in favor of Barr that would, in essence, also be in favor of government attacks on law-abiding protesters and political interference in ongoing criminal probes? Do they want to go home and defend that to the voters?
Look, I watched Trump’s embarrassing rally in Tulsa Saturday night (or at least I tried until his endless droning about “Sleepy Joe Biden” managed to put me to sleep instead). The smell of political death surrounds the Trump presidency — illustrated by both the tiny crowd that was less than one-third of a 19,000-seat arena, and by the hysterical foolishness of Team Trump getting punked by teen K-Pop stars and thinking that 1 million people (!!) were coming. Ever since the debacle in Lafayette Square, more and more former and hoping-to-be again “respectable Republicans” are breaking free from the worst of Trumpism — even the conservative chief justice of the Supreme Court, John Roberts.
Yet the danger of overconfidence going into November’s election is all too real, and so is the risk of assuming that the growing odds of a Trump blowout defeat will eliminate the hard work that’s required to restore the values of the American Experiment. We need to rebuild the shattered guardrails of our democracy, and that includes punishing the wrongdoers and shaming their names for the history books. Impeaching William Barr isn’t worth the time? Really? America can’t afford not to.