Is Bill Barr the Most Dangerous Member of the Trump Administration?

The attorney general has become Trump’s political enforcer.

Photo illustration: Soohee Cho/The Intercept, Getty Images

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Attorney General William Barr has emerged as the shrewdest and most effective member of the Trump administration, weaponizing the Department of Justice to protect the president and his allies while threatening his enemies with legal retribution. He has made it clear that in sharp contrast to the traditionally independent role of the AG, he is willing to serve as Donald Trump’s enforcer, providing a facade of legal propriety to the president’s election-year political maneuverings. What does this mean for the future of American politics? How bad could things get if Trump secures a second term this November? Emily Bazelon, Yale research fellow, staff writer for New York Times magazine, and host of Slate’s “Political Gabfest,” joins Mehdi Hasan to discuss.

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Emily Bazelon: When you worry about the Justice Department being used as a tool that could interfere in the next election, then you’re talking about really throwing rule of law out the window entirely. That’s what autocrats do.

[Musical interlude.]

MH: Welcome to Deconstructed. I’m Mehdi Hasan.

We often talk on this show about Trump’s authoritarian tendencies, the threat he poses to democracy, his abuses of power and the rule of law.

But could he do any of that, if he didn’t have cover from the Justice Department, if he didn’t have loyal Attorney General Bill Barr?

EB: I think Bill Barr is perhaps Trump’s most effective appointee right now.

MH: That’s my guest, Emily Bazelon, Yale University law lecturer, New York Times magazine staff writer, and co-host of Slate’s Political Gabfest. She thinks Barr is helping pave the way to a Trumpian autocracy.

So, on today’s show: Is Attorney General Bill Barr the most dangerous man in America?

Al Sharpton: What is Obamagate?

News Anchor: The plot thickens in what President Trump has deemed as Obamagate.

Jesse Watters: It looks like the Obamagate scandal is about to get a lot bigger.

Brett Baier: The President tweeting, “Obamagate makes Watergate look small-time.”

Lou Dobbs: Senator Lindsey Graham says he wants to find out more about Obamagate

President Donald J. Trump: Obamagate. It’s been going on for a long time. And it’s a disgrace that it happened and it should never be allowed to happen in our country again.

MH: We’re close to 100,000 Americans dead from the coronavirus, but the president of the United States wants you not to think about that, and instead to focus on what he believes was a Deep-State, criminal conspiracy against him and his team — a criminal conspiracy led by his predecessor. He calls it Obamagate, but he doesn’t actually know what it is, or what crime was supposed to have been committed.

Philip Rucker: What is the crime, exactly, that you’re accusing him of?

DJT: You know what the crime is. The crime is very obvious to everybody. All you have to do is read the newspapers, except yours. John, please.

MH: A central part of the big anti-Obama, anti-Biden conspiracy theory from Trump right now revolves around the prosecution of General Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, who was fired by Trump for lying to the Vice President about his conversations with the Russian ambassador, and who twice pled guilty to lying to the FBI.

Flynn, though, has since become a martyr in MAGA circles, where he’s seen as proof that Obama, and Biden, and the FBI, and the evil Deep State were out to get Trump, from before he was even elected. Earlier this month, Bill Barr, the attorney general, and his Department of Justice decided to drop criminal charges against Flynn — a decision which no career prosecutor at the DOJ signed their name onto, by the way. This is how the attorney general defended that controversial move in a rare CBS TV interview last week:

Catherine Herridge: Does the fact remain that he lied?

Attorney General William Barr: Well, you know, people sometimes plead to things that turn out not to be crimes.

CH: What should Americans take away from your action is the Flynn case today?

WB: I want to make sure that we restore confidence in the system. There’s only one standard of justice.

MH: Confidence in the system? There has never been LESS confidence in it. And this isn’t some partisan, left/right thing, either: Republican Donald Ayer, who served as deputy attorney general under George Bush Sr., and has known Barr for 40 years, he says the current attorney general is helping Trump become an autocrat, he’s destroying the Justice Department, and that he should resign.

Last week, more than 2,000 former officials of the Justice Department and the FBI, who served under Republican and Democratic presidents, also called on Barr to resign as AG, for “political interference in Flynn’s prosecution” and for having “once again assaulted the rule of law” — the “once again” referring to the fact that Barr’s DOJ also overruled career prosecutors back in February to get a softer sentence for another convicted criminal, and former Trump adviser, Roger Stone.

But, of course, Barr won’t be resigning. He’s more powerful, more influential, more popular with his boss, the president, than ever before.

DJT: Bill Barr is a man of unbelievable credibility and courage, and he’s going to go down in the history books.

MH: Well, he’s definitely going to go down in modern American history as perhaps the most compromised, policitized, partisan, illiberal attorney general of all.

But let’s be clear: that’s precisely why Barr is the attorney general of Donald Trump’s dreams.

At first, Trump thought his dream guy was Jeff Sessions, the former far-right Republican senator from Alabama, and his original AG. But even Sessions wasn’t pliant or corrupt enough for this president.

“Where’s my Roy Cohn?” Trump is said to have shouted in anger, at his aides, when he heard the news in 2017 that then-AG Sessions would be recusing himself from the Russia inquiry. Roy Cohn was Trump’s former personal lawyer and fixer, who was also a lawyer to prominent Mafia figures and Senator Joseph McCarthy’s top aide during his anti-communist witch hunt in the 1950s.

That’s how Trump sees the office of Attorney General: as his own Roy Cohn, his own personal lawyer and fixer. But here’s what’s worse: that’s apparently how Bill Barr sees himself, too.

Because in almost every major scandal of this presidency over the past 12 months or so, Barr has been there to shield Trump, to protect the president; not the rule of law, not the Department of Justice, not the work of career prosecutors, and certainly not the American people.

Take the Mueller report. Barr went out of his way to spin it beforehand, in Trump’s favor. For example, Barr told reporters that Mueller’s decision not to charge the president with a crime had nothing to do with long-standing DOJ policy that a sitting president can’t be indicted.

Robert Mueller said the exact opposite, both in his report and at a later press conference. A federal judge later criticized Barr for his “lack of candor” and called his official summary of the Mueller report “distorted” and “misleading.”

Nevertheless, the attorney general has spent the past year trying to discredit both the Mueller report and the original Russia investigation by enforcement and intelligence agencies; he even launched an investigation into the investigators, which is still ongoing.

Listen to the kind of hyperbole Barr comes up with to curry favor with Trump on this issue:

WB: What happened to the president, in the 2016 election, and throughout the first two years of his administration was abhorrent. It was a grave injustice, and it was unprecedented in American history.

MH: Take Trump’s tax returns. When the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office tried to get a hold of Trump’s tax returns last October, Barr’s Justice Department officially joined the case and asked the judge to block the subpoena. Trump was involved in that case, not as the president but as a private citizen, so why on earth would federal prosecutors get involved on his behalf?

Because Barr understands that it’s his job to play personal lawyer to Trump, not to play lawyer for the American people.

Take the Ukraine whistleblower, whose revelations ultimately led to the impeachment of President Trump. Barr’s DOJ conveniently declined to investigate the whistleblower complaint about the president’s phone call last July with President Zelensky of Ukraine, when it came to them. That DOJ decision led dozens of government inspectors general to warn that Barr’s Justice Department “could seriously undermine the critical role whistle blowers play.”

And by the way, what a shameless conflict of interest that was, given the call transcript shows Trump referred to Barr by name in his chat with the Ukrainian president, and not in a good way, either, saying: “I will have Mr. Giuliani give you a call and I am also going to have Attorney General Barr call and we will get to the bottom of it.”

Rudy Giuliani, remember, is the president’s official personal lawyer, whereas Bill Barr it seems, is just his unofficial personal lawyer.

But, of course, Barr has form when it comes to covering up for Republican presidents and helping them abuse their powers, at home and abroad. A lot of people are not aware of the fact that this is not Barr’s first rodeo — he was attorney general for 18 months under George Bush Sr., a period in which he helped the elder Bush cover up the Iran-Contra affair — you remember, Iran-Contra, right? When the Reagan-Bush administration secretly traded missiles for Americans hostages in Lebanon, and then illegally used the proceeds of those arms sales to fund Contra rebels in Nicaragua.

In the final days of his presidency, Bush Sr. issued pardons to six defendants in the Iran-Contra affair, including former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger — on the eve of Weinberger’s trial for perjury and obstruction of justice. The independent counsel at the time, Lawrence Walsh, accused Bush of “misconduct” and of helping to complete “the Iran-Contra cover-up.” And who advised Bush to dole out those six dodgy pardons? His attorney general, of course, Bill Barr.

Now, that should have finished his career as a public official — but not in D.C.. No, this is a town where Joe Biden praised Barr years later as “one of the best” attorney generals he ever worked with. Biden also voted for Barr to be AG back in 1990, when he was chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and even hosted the Barr family at his home in Delaware. This is a town where in 2019, just last year, three Senate Democrats joined with Republicans to confirm Barr as attorney general, despite his awful Iran-Contra record.

And that’s part of the reason why Barr is so dangerous, and why we’re talking about him on the show today. He’s not just a yes-man. They’re a dime a dozen in this administration of sycophants and grifters. No, Barr is a seriously smart guy, who has used his intellect, his experience, and his insider knowledge of U.S. government bureaucracy, to advance what’s been called “the unitary executive theory” — which basically says the president has unchecked executive power, that he shouldn’t have to share it in any way with Congress or the courts.

In 2018, before he even joined the administration, Barr wrote a memo against the Russia probe, in which he argued that the president “alone is the executive branch,” in whom “the Constitution vests all federal law enforcement power, and hence prosecutorial discretion.”

Now, Trump clearly wants to be a tinpot dictator — we all know that — he wants to be an autocrat, he wants to be the Viktor Orban of the U.S. And you don’t get to be that kind of leader unless you have the justice system onboard, unless you have loyal allies at the top of the Justice Department, willing to disregard the rule of law, disregard constitutional and political norms, disregard pesky checks and balances.

So you have Trump, who has an instinctive affinity for authoritarianism, given a veneer of legitimacy by Barr, who has an ideological affinity for authoritarianism. Again, that’s what makes Barr so dangerous. He’s Trump’s key legal enabler and protector — and he doesn’t care who knows it, or what the consequences are.

CH: When history looks back on this decision, how do you think it will be written?

WB: Well, history is written by the winners, so it largely depends on [laughs] who’s writing the history.

MH: It is indeed. So what happens if Trump wins in November, if he’s re-elected? What damage could he and Barr do to the Constitution and the rule of law, to American democracy itself, in a second term? And how much damage have they already done?

[Musical interlude]

MH: My guest today has been following Bill Barr for many years now. Emily Bazelon is a lecturer and senior research fellow at Yale Law School, co-host of the Slate’s hugely popular podcast Political Gabfest, and a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine. She not only profiled Bill Barr for the Times Magazine back in October, but more recently co-authored an op-ed for the paper, headlined: “There Used to Be Justice. Now We Have Bill Barr.”

Emily, thanks for joining me on Deconstructed.

EB: You are so welcome! Thanks for having me.

MH: As high-level Trump appointees go, how dangerous is Bill Barr, in your view?

EB: I think Bill Barr is perhaps Trump’s most effective appointee right now, the person who is the best at getting done the top priorities for President Trump. And I think for the Justice Department, those aren’t so much a matter of traditional policy areas like criminal justice or even civil rights, which in past Republican administrations, we’ve seen real reversals in civil rights policy and enforcement. And some of that’s going on in this Justice Department. But what has emerged as the key issue is protecting President Trump and people who are close to him. And also, I think, trying to gather evidence that could hurt Democrats who are opposing President Trump. And so we see Bill Barr take his theory of a kind of all powerful executive, which he’s held for a long time, and really put it at the disposal of this particular president.

MH: So, I agree with you. I think the fact that he’s actually competent and he’s effective, unlike a lot of the other kind of unqualified grifters in this administration, suggests that, you know, we need to take him much more seriously. When Trump you know, famously said, ‘I want my own Roy Cohn, I want my own personal fixer,’ was that what he was specifically looking for in Barr? And has Barr played that role, happily, enthusiastically in your view?

EB: Yeah, well, there’s this amazing moment before Barr’s appointed and Barr is basically in retirement. He had been the attorney general for George H.W. Bush, he had a career before that in the Justice Department, and then, after that, he made a lot of money representing corporations in private practice.

But he had really receded from private — from public view. And then he writes this memo in which he says that the Mueller investigation is terrible, and should never have happened, and is very critical of the way Bob Mueller is operating, which is kind of amazing, because they had been pretty close colleagues and supposedly friends before this.

And so, this unasked for memo, which Barr sends to top officials of the Justice Department, it’s kind of like a job audition, or at least that’s how it appears in retrospect. So you see in this memo, someone who is promising pretty much exactly what Trump wants, which is to make Mueller go away, to diminish the problem of investigations for his, for his administration as much as possible. And Barr is someone who I think a lot of people in the Washington establishment, in both parties, expected to be independent. But, in fact, Barr’s conception of the office is that the attorney general should really be working hand-in-glove with the President. And I think Barr has been very, very good at exactly that.

MH: It’s funny that you mentioned that, his conception of executive power, his memo, this goes back many decades to when he served under Reagan and Bush Sr., how the, how the attorney general should work hand in glove with the president. What’s interesting about the whole unitary executive theory is that republicans like Barr, Emily, correct me if I’m wrong, they really — they only really believe in it under a Republican president. It’s not like they give the same leeway on executive power to an Obama or a Clinton. In fact, I’m old enough to remember when Obama was being accused of being a dictator, of being an abuser of executive power.

EB: Right, I mean, it’s hard to hold Barr individually accountable for this, because he wasn’t so much in the public eye. But you are right. He joined an op-ed during the Obama administration that did not take the same kind of view of giving President Obama the benefit of the doubt in the way in which he has really amplified presidential power and the executive branch under President Trump.

I also think, you know, when we’re talking about how effective Barr is, it’s really important to look at his media appearances and the way he is able to kind of glide through certain questioning. He just seems very unruffled. Like, he’s got this, he has an answer for everything. You have to know quite a lot to understand what the problem is, if any, in what he’s saying. If you’re just sort of looking for someone who can sound like they’re making sense and upholding the norms of the Justice Department, he kind of passes that test in a way that some of the other Trump officials are just not as dexterous.

MH: No, you’re undoubtedly correct that he doesn’t come across like a madman or a kind of complete incompetent. You know, you don’t watch an interview with him and laugh your head off like you would if you watched, you know, a Ben Carson or whatever [laughs], or one of the many other … interesting appointees that Trump has brought into the cabinet. It helps, I guess, that he gives so few interviews, and when he does, he gets softballs of the type he received from Catherine Herridge of CBS News last week; I guess that’s very helpful. He reminds me kind of a bit like a Dick Cheney figure, in this Trump administration.

EB: Yeah, or Donald Rumsfeld, right? I mean, someone who is really good at holding and exercising power, and knows how to operate within an administration. I mean, he has deep experience in the Justice Department; that’s really useful for running it. And in moments where he has, in some way, deviated publicly from President Trump — we’ve seen this a couple of times — he did it enough to kind of preserve this veneer of independence. But at the same time, he’s obviously not really making President Trump upset, right? So you see this sort of minor correction in public, and then Barr going back to being a very effective operative, I would say, for the President.

MH: So when, when, for example, he kind of briefed, oh, you know, he was upset to have been mentioned in the Ukraine phone call transcript, or when he said, ‘Oh, the tweets are making my life difficult.’ But yes, as you say, he doesn’t — you know, at the end of the day, those are not big things in the grand scheme of things.

Let me ask you this: Bill Barr, of course, is not the first crony to be appointed to the DOJ. How does he compare to other dodgy, corrupt, or partisan AGs in modern American history?

EB: So you know, we’ve had a bunch of these people. [Laughs]

MH: Great!

EB: I mean, you know, Nixon’s Attorney General John Michell went to jail during Watergate.

And in the 20th century, the number of people who are partisan or who are hacks — I would not call Barr a hack, but there have been some serious hacks as attorney general — what we’re really talking about is this long-running tension in the American system. You have the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, who’s part of the executive branch, is appointed by the president, can be fired by the president, is somehow supposed to be independent.

Since Watergate, there has been much more of a norm that presidents are supposed to separate themselves from any kind of investigation that might affect them or anyone close to them in their administration, right? You’re just supposed to keep this at hand’s length. But as we’ve seen in this administration, norms are easily eroded. If you decided you don’t care about them, then they don’t exist anymore. And I think that Barr has really pushed that to make the attorney general’s office, to kind of take it back to a pre-Watergate mode, in which these ideas about independence just are shredded.

MH: He does so much stuff. [Laughs.] He’s a very busy man. Just while we’re recording this interview, CNN are reporting a new story about his multiple meetings with John Durham, the prosecutor he appointed to investigate the Russia investigators. And they’re asking about, you know, what’s the independence of John Durham.

Of all the dodgy things that he’s done since taking office, just a little over a year ago, what’s the worst thing he’s done? What’s the one that stood out to you? Most that made you go? What the hell?

EB: Well, this appointment of John Durham, I’m not sure it’s the worst thing but it comes at this moment—so, you know, we have all of the Mueller investigation, we have, you know, Mueller’s appointment through DOJ, through the Justice Department in the pre-Barr era, in which Jeff Sessions, the former attorney general, recused himself.

That opened the door to Mueller. We have this long period, it lasts for years, in which whatever Mueller is going to conclude, it becomes crucial for the kind of rule of law in America for him to finish his work. Okay, he finishes. Then, meanwhile, there is the inspector general who is the normal watchdog in the Justice Department who’s looking into whether there was anything wrong with the basis for the Mueller investigation, for the FBI getting worried about Russian interference in the 2016 campaign, and ties between Trump and Russia.

The inspector general concludes there was a basis for the FBI’s investigation. Other problems that relate to a particular kind of warrant, called a FISA warrant, but those are like ongoing concerns— they’re not saying that there was something wrong with or corrupt, at all, with what Mueller did or with what the FBI did.

Then you have Barr show up and say, ‘You know what, I’m launching my own —potentially criminal — investigation into these same investigators, and that is putting the cloud again over the whole Mueller investigation. It’s creating a situation in which you could see the Justice Department bringing criminal charges against people who worked for the government. Last week, we saw Barr say, ‘Oh, I’m not talking about criminal charges against President Obama or Joe Biden. But I might be talking about criminal charges against other people.’

When you worry about the Justice Department being used as a tool that could interfere in the next election, then you’re, you’re talking about really throwing rule of law out the window entirely. Because, of course, our cure for a president who we see as abusing his power is to vote him out of office. If you’re trying to interfere with that by making it seem like the other side is the corrupt side, and you don’t have a lot of basis for that, that is, you know — that’s what autocrats do.

MH: The irony is that Democrats share some responsibility for Barr, too, back in 1991. It was chairman Joe Biden of the Senate Judiciary Committee who supported his nomination as AG under Bush Sr. I believe he later called him one of the finest AGs he ever worked with; that was after Iran-Contra. And, last year, three Senate Democrats — Manchin, Simena, and Jones voted with Republicans to confirm him as AG, this time for Trump.

EB: Yeah, I mean, there really was this feeling in Washington that Barr was like, going to be the grown-up in the room.

MH: We’ve seen how that’s played out before with others.

EB: Exactly. This seems to be like Lucy with the football lesson that people have to learn over and over again, then the media has to learn over and over again, and the Trump administration.

So I guess you have to remember that, you know, Jeff Sessions, the former Attorney General, had this pretty tumultuous time in office and in other — you know, Sessions, really did support the role of law by recusing himself from the Mueller investigation based on a meeting he had with the Russian ambassador when he was advising the Trump campaign. So, like, that was Sessions obeying the advice of the ethics experts in the Justice Department. It’s like a beginning-of-Trump-era move that it’s hard to imagine other people making now.

But Sessions was deeply unpopular among liberals, right? I mean, he was doing all of this immigration enforcement, particularly, that really troubled people, and troubled Democrats.

Then you have Matt Whittaker come in, this kind of unconfirmed acting attorney general, who looks like he’s totally unqualified, and that gets Washington all riled up. That was the context for Barr’s appointment by Trump. And I think there was this sense that, oh, George H.W.’s administration, like, those are the old school more reliable, by-the-book Republicans, and he’s going to exercise independent oversight over President Trump and that just was not actually what his record showed. [Laughs.]

MH: Which is so frustrating because yes, he did have this record: H.W. Bush gave a bunch of pardons out on the eve of leaving office, which the independent counsel at that time castigated him for, accused him of a cover up and it was Barr who helped give out the pardons as attorney general.

EB: Right. It’s true. I mean, I was looking back this morning at this oral history that Barr did years ago for the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, and they asked about these pardons. And Muller says, “I went over and told the president I thought he should not only pardon Caspar Weinberger, but while he’s at it, he should pardon about five others. I said, ’In for a penny in for a pound.’” In other words, Barr was really pushing to broaden the use of Bush’s pardon-power here, and yet there was just very little attention to this before he was appointed.

I have to say that I, personally, I wasn’t looking into Barr, like I wasn’t investigating him as a journalist before he got appointed, and I feel bad about that. Like, we should have been paying more attention to this.

MH: And the whole Iran-Contra pardons put the whole General-Flynn-dropping-of-charges-Roger’s-sentence-lighter-sentencing in a whole new context, when you bear in mind how he, as you say, how he wanted to a president to exercise pardon-power, with much worse offenses, people who were actually on trial at the time.

And just on the subject of Iran, you mentioned in your profile of him for the New York Times Magazine, that he advised the elder George Bush that he didn’t need congressional approval to attack Iraq in 1991. But Bush ignored him and actually got congressional approval for the first Gulf War. So Barr’s not gonna be the guy telling Trump to go to Congress before this president decides to attack Iran, is he?

EB: Right. I mean, you mentioned the unitary executive theory, and this is the idea that the President has a lot of power — like really a broader scope of power that we normally think of. And in this area of whether you can declare a war, I mean, we know that Congress has to formally declare a war, but we’ve also seen the White House over the centuries really encroach more and more on Congress’s war-making authority by sending troops to various places, by, you know, using the intelligence agencies to do things that involve violence.

And what you see when Barr is earlier on in the Justice Department is the situation in which he pushes to — he pushes to write an opinion in the Justice Department that gives the Reagan administration the power to kidnap somebody on foreign soil who is not a U.S. national. And previously, the Justice Department thought that was illegal; Barr changed that position within the Justice Department, and then he kept that change in position secret for about four years. So this case is being litigated and nobody knows that the Justice Department has actually decided that, that the president has this kind of kidnapping power. You can see there, that’s a really, a big expanse of the president’s power to do things.

MH: And in terms of power, you say the president, as — you know — his belief is that the president has this kind of unchecked executive power. Congress obviously has powers, too — the Congress actually has the power to impeach an attorney general. It’s never been used before, I believe, but Elizabeth Warren called for it last year after his behavior over the Mueller inquiry and his kind of misleading of the public. Do you think that’s ever going to be on the table, impeaching an attorney general like Bill Barr?

EB: I mean, I feel like Barr is too smart to do something that would really make that a serious threat. I mean, certainly we’re not going to see a Senate controlled by Republicans, or even with, you know, a lot of Republican votes, and so you need a supermajority to impeach; you’re not going to see Barr alienate and or antagonize that constituency at all.

And I think, also, there is just this question about impeaching the attorney general versus impeaching the president. And it goes back to these difficult matters of independence. I mean, if the attorney general is really a kind of handmaiden of the president, so to speak, then — and, and his abuses are tied to the president’s own conception of his agenda and what he wants to do, or protecting himself, or smearing his enemies — it’s a little hard to see why you would be separately impeaching the attorney general, though I guess one could imagine some hypothetical world of some heavily Democratic congress after 2020, in which Trump and Barr were impeached together. But it seems pretty far fetched.

MH: True. And, of course,Trump already has been impeached. [Laughs.] So I guess, just looking around for other people to go after.

Just before we finish — you said in your profile of Barr that one of the reasons he offered his services to Trump is because he sees a society in moral decline, beset by moral relativism and secularism and atheism, all of which he, as a devout, right-wing Catholic, is horrified by. But is there this weird situation that we have right now, where you see these Christian warriors going into ideological political battle on behalf of the most un-Christian, anti-Christian person you could ever imagine, the thrice-married, adulterous, ex-casino owner, mega-narcissist Donald J. Trump. Do you think that bothers Barr or he just doesn’t care?

EB: I don’t think it bothers Barr. I think that conservative Christians like Barr have really, really made their peace with President Trump, because he is their vehicle to power.

And I’m so glad you brought up this part of his record, and his issue, because he has been talking about this notion that religious people, religious Christians, are under assault from secularists for decades. Like, it’s very consistent. And when he started making speeches about this as attorney general, people thought it was kind of unsettling for a top government official to be speaking in these very stark terms of, like, religious war. But he has been saying that since the 90s.

And so I think from his point of view, like if you really feel like your whole way of life and your deeply held values of you, and your church, this institution that you think is really important, are under assault by this other side, that you’re the one on the defensive, then you see a president who is going to turn over the Justice Department to you, you don’t care whether that particular guy goes to church or not. Like, that is pretty much beside the point.

MH: That’s true. And deeply depressing. One very last, quick question. I know you have to run Emily. What kind of a threat does a Bill Barr pose to democracy, to the rule of law, to voting rights in a second Trump term, with an extra four years in office?

EB: Yeah, I mean, I am so focused right now, as I think a lot of people are, on having a fair and free election in November. And so, I mostly want Bill Barr to be making sure that there is no interference with that election.

In past elections, the Justice Department has served a very important role at the polls of making sure that voters are not intimidated. We want to see the Justice Department doing that again this year in a way that is completely non-partisan. And we want to make sure that the Justice Department is not joining lawsuits that make it harder for people to vote by diminishing their access instead of expanding it. So I think those issues right now about the election are just paramount.

And then there are these background questions we were talking about earlier. If the Justice Department puts Joe Biden or someone connected to him under some kind of cloud of suspicion with an investigation — and, of course, we saw this with the FBI and Hillary Clinton — that can have an impact on how voters are evaluating choices, especially in a world in which one often feels that what Trump is trying to do is make sure that every politician is kind of smeared, and seems like they’re not worth supporting, right? It’s about kind of embracing a decline, if you will, of American political standards, and making it seem like, yeah, well, we’re all the same.

MH: That is true.

Emily, we will have to leave it there. Thank you so much for joining me on Deconstructed.

EB: Thanks very much for having me.

[Musical interlude.]

MH: That was Emily Bazelon, of Slate’s Political Gabfest, and of The New York Times Magazine. And that’s our show!

And a reminder to head over to and make a donation — $5 or $10 a month, any amount that feels right to you. That’s Shows like this one depend on your support.

Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Zach Young. The show was mixed by Bryan Pugh. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.

I’m Mehdi Hasan. You can follow me on Twitter @mehdirhasan. If you haven’t already, please do subscribe to the show so you can hear it every week. Go to to subscribe from your podcast platform of choice: iPhone, Android, whatever. If you’re subscribed already, please do leave us a rating or review — it helps new people find the show. And if you want to give us feedback, email us at Thanks so much!

See you next week.

Correction: June 3, 2020
Mehdi Hasan stated that the Reagan administration secretly traded missiles for hostages in Iran during the Iran-Contra scandal. While the hostages were held by Iranian-backed forces, they were, in fact, held in Lebanon. The transcript has been updated.

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