Gaming the Throne

Like me, other Americans who have yet to drink the Trump team Kool-Aid may be wondering why an otherwise widely respected and successful private attorney like William Barr would want to insinuate himself into the orbit of a “man” [sic] like Donald Trump. (As we have seen with Mr. Cohen, Mr. Stone, Mr. Manafort, Mr. Flynn, Mr. Papadopoulos, Mr. McGahn and so many others, those who seek membership on the president’s much-investigated team often become the target of investigation themselves. Not to mention the indictments and convictions.)

So why would Barr submit an Attorney General “job application,” back in 2017, in the form of an unsolicited memo opining that the Mueller investigation was improper and that the president is, for all practical purposes, immune to prosecution? He had to know this would ingratiate him in the mind of a president who, at the time, had only Twitter derision on offer for then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. And as we know, Mr. Sessions was not long in the job thereafter.

Was it so that once he attained the job of running the Department of Justice he could effectively quash the special counsel’s report? It would seem so, given his highly controversial “interpretation” of the report as “exonerating” the president from any possible charges of obstruction of justice (controversial because we now see, even in the highly redacted version provided by Barr, that it does no such thing). Not content to “sweeten the well” with his nearly fact-free “summary” of the report (which contains not so much as one complete sentence from the report), he also made the highly unusual gesture of holding a press conference on the day of its release. This was apparently to explain away the president’s attempts at obstruction using the novel (and bizarre) “Kavanaugh” doctrine. That is, the president’s “emotionally driven” attempts to get others to end or undermine Mueller’s efforts–then in some cases firing them if they refused — were understandable given the highly partisan pressure he was under since day one of this presidency. In other words, who wouldn’t attempt to subvert the Constitution, who wouldn’t try to slow the progress of justice, when it was this same  justice that had been bearing down on one so relentlessly for so long? Who indeed.

But why would Barr do that?  Why would he venture beyond mere flattery and submissive/sycophantic rhetoric to willingly putting himself on the list of those actors who, in the end, may be found to have aided a presidential law-breaker? Surely Barr knows that although Nixon walked away from his crimes, Dean and Haldeman and  the rest did some time.

As always, there is an answer, and the answer is that Barr himself has a personal interest in permanently shelving the results of the special counsel’s inquiry. According to an April 15 article by Cristina Maza in Newsweek: “This much is known: On Barr’s public financial disclosure report, he admits to working for a law firm that represented Russia’s Alfa Bank and for a company whose co-founders allegedly have long-standing business ties to Russia. What’s more, he received dividends from Vector Group, a holding company with deep financial ties to Russia.”

Remember Alfa Bank? The Russian Oligarch-controlled entity that was found to somehow be in regular, secret communication with the Trump campaign’s server located in Trump Tower back in 2016? Barr worked for the firm that represents Alfa right up to his confirmation. And as for the Vector Group, according to Maza, “The company’s president, Howard Lorber, brought Trump to Moscow in the 1990s to seek investment projects there. The trip is widely seen as the first of many attempts to establish a Trump Tower in Moscow.” And Don Jr. is said to have been communicating with Lorber as recently as during the 2016 campaign (when, we recently learned, contrary to their earlier claims the Trump’s organization was still talking to Russian interests about the proposed Moscow project).

As with so many other Trump “associates” we’ve known, in the end it doesn’t take much digging to connect the dots that connect William Barr to the same Russian financial and government interests that were so famously represented at the Trump Tower meeting attended by Don Jr., Jared, Manafort and, of course, Russian operatives waaaay back in the olden days of 2016. What is difficult to understand is how none of this came up during Barr’s “lightning round” Senate confirmation.

Then again, it’s not as if rife incompetence,  disdain for democratic norms, not to mention fear, naked self-interest and shameless self-promotion only pervade the one half of Congress. There’s more than enough of that disease infecting both parties’ representatives on Capitol Hill, not just in the White House these days. This is not to mention the newly politicized, Garland-free Supreme Court. We seem to have drifted completely away from the idea of actual accountability and this quaint old notion called rule of law, toward an endless parade of grandstanding, toward tiresome identity politics mixed with careful political maneuvering, toward basic acquisition of power for one’s own tribe, for one’s own selfish purposes and one’s own exclusive ideology.

Trump likes to trade in “Game of Thrones” memes, because he sees American society and American government in the stark transactional terms he learned in the bare-knuckle world his family inhabits–one of conquest, dominance and submission of the type that pervade that HBO fantasy. It is a strongman’s world where one’s reputation is forged not by one’s character or actions but by one’s ability to control or successfully manipulate  the actions and words of others toward one’s own advantage. “Rules” and “law”—”ethics”—those are for the powerless, for weak ineffective nobodies to worry about. But while TV shows come and go, the question for the rest of us—as Trump collects his campaign fortune, builds his base and secures his independence from a weak and feckless Congress, as he secures the courts—is whether we citizens want our elected representatives to play their roles as if they are starring in a winner-take-all TV game. Because they are playing their game in our real world, and it appears playing for keeps. It seems to me the question is being answered for us, by people who’ve forgotten how to represent us, people who’ve abandoned the idea of governing and now settle for the chance to win their portion of the tawdry spoils of our pointless internecine war.

Rather than effectively represent the interests of those who put them in office, or even simply uphold the rule of law on which this society was founded, our so-called leaders and “arbiters of justice” appear content to act as low-level players in a greedy simpleton’s lawless, zero-sum game.

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