How Character Is Revealed: Barr, Comey, McConnell et al.

by Neil H. Buchanan

Donald Trump's personal defense attorney Bill Barr -- currently masquerading as the Attorney General representing the people of the United States -- has had quite a month.  Now, faced with a shockingly evasive and dishonest series of statements and actions by Trump's man, Barr's allies are pointing to the time after Barr was nominated to his current job, when plenty of people said good things about his integrity, being a "lawyer's lawyer," and all that.

None of that is actually relevant, of course.  Everyone had good reason, as they always do when a new person is hired, to hope for the best and to look for reasons to feel that such hope is justified.  Moreover, Barr was replacing an interim AG (Whittaker) who was a walking joke, who in turn had replaced the most nakedly partisan AG (Sessions) imaginable -- until now, of course.  Surely, having a former AG who had served a conservative (but not hyper-conservative) president in the previous century would turn out well, right?

We now know the answer, with Barr having added "snitty" to the nation's lexicon in the process of attacking the integrity, intelligence, and maturity of people who dared to challenge him.  Trump, as one conservative Washington Post columnist put it, "has finally found someone who licks his boots out of principle."  Ouch.

The most interesting analysis of Barr's behavior that I have seen comes from former FBI Director James Comey, who tried to explain in The New York Times earlier this week how people like Barr and now-departing Deputy AG Rob Rosenstein could become such toadies to Trump.  His short answer: Lack of character.

I think there is a lot to that theory, but it also leads me to think about the other people who are supposedly of high moral character who were supposed to stand up to Trump, especially Republicans in the Senate.  Whereas Comey is talking about people who had always acted decently and honorably but failed the test of resisting a menace, Senate Republicans (and, to be clear, many other Republicans at all levels of government) are people who have failed to act decently forever but were presumed to have a reserve of principle that would emerge when the time came.

In short, Comey is talking about morally empty people who had been acting morally almost on autopilot; I am talking about people who had been acting immorally but who were thought not truly to be morally empty.  But they are.

Before getting there, let us start with Comey himself.  Having now secured a frequent platform on the most influential op-ed page in the world, Comey has shown himself to be just as much the preening, self-satisfied finger-wagger as he was during his stint at the FBI.

His book tour last year, for example, was full of explanations about how he had no choice -- due to his high principles -- to intervene in the 2016 election less than two weeks beforehand, telling anyone who would listen how horrible it would have been had he taken the "easy" way out and not risked reproach, knowing as he did that the future of the republic could be fatally compromised if the late-discovered emails had actually turned up something after Hillary Clinton had won.

He never could explain why he had to report the late discovery in a sensationalistic way, of course.  And he never even came close to addressing (much less satisfactorily explaining) why he thought it was acceptable and necessary to hold a press conference in July of that year to scold Hillary Clinton even as he said that "no competent prosecutor" would bring charges against her -- a move that violated departmental policy and put Comey in highly partisan territory.

It is, therefore, as difficult as ever to hear from Comey about anything, especially when the clear message is once again that he is a decent man while others failed.  People "lacking inner strength," he says, do not survive being close to Trump.  Sure, Comey uses former Defense Secretary James Mattis as his example of someone who successfully avoided Trump's degradation, but the unspoken hero in the piece is Comey himself, as always.

Still, even a raging, self-justifying egomaniac can make a good point, and Comey does so.  He describes the ways that being inside TrumpWorld chips away at a person's defenses, with people finding themselves not objecting to lies and then sitting in front of TV cameras praising their dear leader, then telling themselves that they need to stay in order to protect the country from the man that they serve in increasingly craven ways.

And that story certainly fits the known facts about Barr and Rosenstein, with both having long public records that did not show even hints of the shamelessness that they have now revealed.  As I noted above, this is a story in which people who were pretty much describable as "good and decent" throughout their lives are suddenly put in a position where their true (lack of) character becomes impossible to miss.

But what about the people who were not at all admirable, but who we once might have thought had some limit, some line that they would not cross?  What can we say about the people who were presumed ultimately to be patriots, but who have badly failed every test that has come their way?

Former AG Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III is actually an example of the type of person who found his limit.  He was such a neo-segregationist that he was actually voted down for a federal judgeship (in an era when judges routinely sailed through the Senate on bipartisan votes).  When he later won his Senate seat, he was simply awful on almost any measure, such that it surprised no one when he was the first -- and, for a time, the only -- Senate Republican to support Trump in the 2016 nominating contest.

When Trump rewarded him with a plum cabinet post, however, Sessions actually did something right.  He recused himself from the Russia investigation and repeatedly resisted Trump's efforts to force him to change his stance.  Sessions ultimately decided to lose the job rather than to violate his principles.  This is not to say that he was not continuing to be terrible in every other way (especially regarding immigration and drug policy), but he actually did something and stuck to his position in order to uphold a principle higher than convenience or partisanship.

And that resolute behavior, we should recall, continued even though Sessions could be fired at any moment by Trump.  Compare that to Senate Republicans, who cannot be fired by Trump and who face, at worst, nasty tweets and the possibility of facing a primary challenge from someone who thinks Trump is possibly too accommodating to the "libtards."  Where are those senators who are supposed to do better, at least when the chips are down?

Again, we are not talking about all senators.  There has never been any reason to think that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had any deep principles other than serving the powerful and winning at all costs.  True, I was surprised that McConnell did not strategically conclude that Trump would be worse for his party than it would have been to have a weak President Hillary Clinton to kick around, but my surmise was not based on any thought that McConnell has any fealty to the Constitution.  (See esp., Justice Merrick Garland.)

McConnell, then, is in the same category as Kellyanne Conway and Steve Bannon, people who (if we had heard about them at all) were not thought to be anything but operatives with deeply immoral ideological commitments.  Even so, there are plenty of Republicans who were presumed to be "patriots at the end of the day."  Where are they?

The most bizarre sub-group here are the people who were movement conservatives -- and thus active in setting up policies to justify wars abroad on false pretenses, to harm poor children, to worsen inequality, to attack women's rights, to deny equality to the LGBTQ community, to roll back civil rights gains for people of color, and on and on -- who stood up to Trump just enough to become politically nonviable in their party.  One would think that this would allow them to act at least on their own principles, if not on broader principles of patriotism.

Yet even after Jeff Flake and Bob Corker announced that they would not run for reelection in 2018, they never acted to oppose Trump or even to do something as simple as to cast free votes against policies -- such as the 2017 tax cut -- that completely violated their stated political beliefs.  I am not saying that being a deficit hawk is defensible, but if one is not running for reelection and is asked to vote on a bill that would radically increase deficits, it might have been reasonable to expect them to vote nay.

That, therefore, is a situation where people who had spent their entire careers advancing bad causes were given opportunities as they departed public life to stand up for their own beliefs and the Constitution, but they chose to do neither.  What about the colleagues they left behind?

I have been keeping a mental list of Republican Senators who have been at one time or another described as "principled" or something along the lines of "a partisan, yes, but in the end an American."  This is not just people like Susan Collins, who still is bizarrely described as a moderate as a policy matter.  It also includes the people who claim -- with no objection from the mainstream press -- to be men (almost always men) of principle.

This includes super-duper right wing extremists like Ted Cruz, who supposedly understands the Constitution and -- although he might disagree on principle with the Warren Court -- is willing to stand on those principles.  Except that he is not.  Nothing in the right-wing canon would justify voting for Brett Kavanaugh to be on the Supreme Court, for example, after he revealed himself to be a partisan hack lacking even a modicum of judicial temperament.  Not even the "principle" of putting an arch-conservative on the Court could justify that, given that the next people in line whom Trump could have nominated (and Senate Republicans confirmed) would have been just as ideologically right-wing as Kavanaugh and Cruz.

But consider how frequently one hears positive-ish things about the following Republican Senators: Ben Sasse, Marco Rubio, Collins, John Cornyn, Chuck Grassley, Rob Portman, Pat Toomey, Rand Paul, Mitt Romney, Shelley Moore Capito.  All of these names have been floated as potential "principled dissenters" who never quite get around to dissenting, even in the face of Trump's escalating assault on the rule of law.

Lamar Alexander is following fellow Tennesseean Bob Corker into retirement, but he could not find it in himself to vote against a recent rule change that made it easier for McConnell to ram things through the Senate.  And again, that would have been a free vote, because there were not three other Republican votes against.

The most extreme of all, however, is Lindsey Graham, whose proximity to the late John McCain (who was himself more style than substance on the "principled stands" front -- but at least was truly principled at times) gave him an undeserved reputation as something of a principled conservative.  His barbed comments during the 2016 primaries about Trump and Cruz made him a media darling, and people thought that he must stand for something.

We now know, unfortunately, that he only stands for Trump.  Again, it is not as if his career had showed him to be anything but a mindless militarist and movement conservative who made his bones during the Bill Clinton impeachment trial.  Even so, we all wanted to think that Graham was somehow in the end a patriot and not a to-the-bitter-end Republican and Trumpist.

How does all of that fit into Comey's "lack of inner strength" narrative?  Unlike Barr and Rosenstein, whose now-revealed lack of inner strength was a surprise because they had done things in the past that seemed reasonable, these Senate Republicans' lack of inner strength is a surprise because we assumed all along that they must have something in their souls besides the black holes that their voting records would have indicated.

As it turns out, however, they are even worse than we thought.  And it did not take a Trumpian mind-meld to create their moral emptiness.  It was visible all along, but no one wanted to believe that so many people in such high office could actually be so malevolent.  Now we know.