Lev Parnas recently told Rachel Maddow that he's more afraid of Attorney General Bill Barr than he is of the mobbed-up foreign oligarchs he has betrayed. Barr, after all, can weaponize our prisons to punish Parnas.
"Am I scared?" he said. "Yes, because I think I'm more scared of our own Justice Department than these criminals right now."
An attorney general willing to bend or even break the law — and certainly willing to conceal crimes and lie to the American people — can be a corrupt president's last line of defense.
When a whistleblower in the White House reported that Trump was bribing and extorting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, that report first went to Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson, who thought it was evidence Trump had committed a serious crime. Atkinson deemed it an "urgent concern" and then gave it to Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire. Under the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act, Maguire was supposed to then hand it over to congressional intelligence committees. Instead, he made a pit-stop at the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, which handed it over to Bill Barr's office.
Which is where it died, until ICIG Atkinson reached out to the House Intelligence Committee to let them know about Barr's cover-up.
The whistleblower's complaint is quite specific. "The whistleblower implicates Barr directly in the opening lines of the complaint," Tessa Berenson wrote for Time magazine on September 26, 2019. She then quoted from the whistleblower:
"In the course of my official duties, I have received information from multiple U.S. Government officials that the President of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election. This interference includes, among other things, pressuring a foreign country to investigate one of the President's main domestic political rivals.
"The President's personal lawyer, Mr. Rudolph Giuliani, is a central figure in this effort.
"Attorney General Barr appears to be involved as well."
The language the whistleblower uses calls to mind the 1972 press reports of Nixon's Attorney General John Mitchell hiring former FBI Agent Stephen King to physically assault and mollify Mitchell's own wife to keep her quiet about his and Nixon's crimes. (King, now 78, was richly rewarded for his lifetime of service to the GOP in a breathtaking way by Donald Trump; more about that in a minute.)
Like Mitchell before him, Barr has long experience covering up the crimes of a corrupt Republican president. We know, because Barr has done it before.
How Barr earned the moniker "coverup-general"
The week of Christmas, 1992, George H.W. Bush was on his way out of office. Bill Clinton had won the White House the month before, and in a few weeks would be sworn in as president.
But Bush's biggest concern wasn't that he'd have to leave the White House to retire back to Connecticut, Maine, or Texas (where he had mansions) but, rather, that he might end up in a federal prison. Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh was closing in fast on him, and Bush's diary was a key to it all.
Walsh had been appointed independent counsel in 1986, to investigate the Iran-Contra crimes of the Reagan administration, and he'd already secured several convictions. The entire criminal enterprise was beginning to unravel, and the American people were watching with horror and fascination.
Did the plot start in the spring of 1980 during the Reagan vs. Carter election, as a way of having the Iranians hold the hostages long enough to humiliate President Carter and cost him the election? Did Bush campaign manager Bill Casey do it all himself, or, as with Nixon/Agnew in 1968, did the presidential candidate and his former CIA director and then-VP candidate, George H.W. Bush, participate?
The president of Iran during the hostage crisis, Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, wrote for the Christian Science Monitor in 2013 that:
"Ayatollah Khomeini and Ronald Reagan had organized a clandestine negotiation, later known as the 'October Surprise,' which prevented the attempts by myself and then-US President Jimmy Carter to free the hostages before the 1980 US presidential election took place. The fact that they were not released tipped the results of the election in favor of Reagan."
Or was the Iran-Contra conspiracy limited, as Reagan and Bush insisted (and Reagan confessed on TV), to later years in the Reagan presidency, in response to a hostage-taking in Lebanon? Who knew what, and when?
Walsh had zeroed in on Iran-related documents that were in the possession of Reagan's former defense secretary, Caspar Weinberger, who all the evidence showed was definitely in on the deal, and Bush's diary that could corroborate it.
Weinberger was preparing to testify that Bush knew about the deal with Iran and even participated, and Walsh had already, based on information he'd obtained from the investigation into Weinberger, demanded that Bush turn over his diary from the campaign.
Bush was panicked. And he only had three more weeks of safety in office before Bill Clinton was to be sworn in.
So Bush called in his attorney general, Bill Barr, and asked his advice.
Barr was already in trouble for covering up another crime committed by Reagan and Bush a few years earlier: the selling of weapons of mass destruction to Iraq's President Saddam Hussein, in violation of federal law. Why not double down?
On October 19, 1992, iconic New York Times columnist William Safire referred to Barr not as "Attorney General" but, instead, as "Coverup-General," noting that Barr was already covering up for Reagan and Bush—and, apparently, himself.
Safire wrote of Barr's unwillingness to appoint an independent counsel to look into "Iraqgate" (what the newspapers were calling the Reagan/Bush administration's illegal sale of WMDs to Iraq):
"Why does the Coverup-General resist independent investigation? Because he knows where it may lead: to Dick Thornburgh, James Baker, Clayton Yeutter, Brent Scowcroft and himself. He vainly hopes to be able to head it off…"
Just two months later, Bush was asking Barr for advice on how to avoid a second very serious charge in the Iran-Contra crimes. How, Bush wanted to know, could they shut down Walsh's investigation before Walsh's lawyers got their hands on Bush's incriminating diary that they'd subpoenaed?
The story came out almost a decade later, although few seemed to notice; politics had moved on, Barr was in private practice, and a new Bush was president.
In April of 2001, safely distant from the swirl of D.C. politics, the University of Virginia's Miller Center was compiling oral presidential histories, and interviewed Barr about his time as AG in the Bush White House. They brought up the issue of the Weinberger pardon, and Barr's involvement in it.
Turns out, Barr was right in the middle of it.
"There were some people arguing just for [a pardon for] Weinberger, and I said, 'No, in for a penny, in for a pound,'" Barr told the interviewer. "I went over and told the President I thought he should not only pardon Caspar Weinberger, but while he was at it, he should pardon about five others."
Which is exactly what George H.W. Bush did, on Christmas Eve, 1992, when most Americans weren't checking the news. The holiday notwithstanding, the result was explosive.
Americans knew that both Reagan and Bush were up to their necks in the Iran-Contra crimes, and both could be facing prison time as a result. The independent counsel had already obtained one conviction and three guilty pleas, and two other individuals were lined up for prosecution. And Walsh was closing in fast on Bush himself, who would lose his immunity in three weeks.
So, when Bush shut the investigation down by pardoning not only Weinberger, but also the five others known to be involved in the crime, destroying Walsh's ability to prosecute anybody, the New York Times freaked out.
The headline of a story by David Johnston ran all the way across four of the six columns on the December 25, 1992, front page of the Times, screaming in all-caps: BUSH PARDONS 6 IN IRAN AFFAIR, ABORTING A WEINBERGER TRIAL; PROSECUTOR ASSAILS 'COVER-UP.'
Bill Barr had struck.
Johnston's second paragraph laid it out:
"Mr. Weinberger was scheduled to stand trial on Jan. 5 on charges that he lied to Congress about his knowledge of the arms sales to Iran and efforts by other countries to help underwrite the Nicaraguan rebels, a case that was expected to focus on Mr. Weinberger's private notes that contain references to Mr. Bush's endorsement of the secret [weapons] shipments to Iran." (emphasis added)
It was déjà vu all over again, as can be seen in William Safire's coverage. Four months earlier, referring to Iraqgate, Safire opened his article, titled "Justice [Department] Corrupts Justice," by writing:
"U.S. Attorney General William Barr, in rejecting the House Judiciary Committee's call for a prosecutor not beholden to the Bush Administration to investigate the crimes of Iraqgate, has taken personal charge of the cover-up."
Safire accused Barr of not only rigging the cover-up, but of being one of the criminals who could be prosecuted.
"Mr. Barr," wrote Safire in August of 1992, "could face prosecution if it turns out that high Bush officials knew about Saddam Hussein's perversion of our Agriculture export guarantees to finance his war machine." He added, "They [Barr and colleagues] have a keen personal and political interest in seeing to it that the Department of Justice stays in safe, controllable Republican hands."
In August and September of 1992, Barr had succeeded in blocking the appointment of an investigator or independent counsel to look into Iraqgate. In December, Barr helped Bush shoot down another independent counsel, Lawrence Walsh, and eliminated any risk that George H.W. Bush would be prosecuted for his Iran-Contra crimes.
Independent Counsel Walsh, wrote Johnston for the Times on Christmas Eve in 1992, "plans to review a 1986 campaign diary kept by Mr. Bush." The diary would be the smoking gun that would nail Bush to the crimes.
"But," noted Johnston, "in a single stroke, Mr. Bush swept away one conviction, three guilty pleas and two pending cases, virtually decapitating what was left of Mr. Walsh's effort, which began in 1986."
Walsh didn't take it lying down, even though he knew the cover-up was now finalized.
Johnston noted that, "Mr. Walsh bitterly condemned the President's action, charging that 'the Iran-contra cover-up, which has continued for more than six years, has now been completed.'"
As Johnston reported, Walsh added that the diary and notes he wanted to enter into a public trial of Weinberger represented, "evidence of a conspiracy among the highest ranking Reagan Administration officials to lie to Congress and the American public."
Walsh had been fighting to get those documents ever since 1986, when he was appointed and Reagan still had two years left in office. Bush's and Weinberger's refusal to turn them over, Johnston noted in the Times, could have, in Walsh's words, "forestalled impeachment proceedings against President Reagan" through a "pattern of 'deception and obstruction.'"
Barr successfully helped Bush decapitate the investigation into Bush's crimes.
Now it appears that Barr is doing the same sort of cover-up work for Trump.
Part of a pattern among Republican attorneys general
It's amazing the power that an attorney general has, particularly when wielded by a man who thinks himself above the law and immune to public opinion.
Back in Nixon's day, for example, Jeb Magruder told reporters Nixon had ordered his own attorney general, John Mitchell, to cover up parts of the Watergate break-in. (Magruder later went to prison for his actions.)
John Mitchell's wife Martha learned about it and was in the process of telling United Press International reporter Helen Thomas the story over the phone when one of John Mitchell's men burst in as she was saying, according to Thomas, "You just get away."
Stephen King, then an ex-FBI agent whom Mitchell had assigned to watch his wife, had, according to Newsweek's account of how veteran crime reporter Marcia Kramer heard it from Martha Mitchell, broken into the room, pulled the phone out of her hands and out of the wall, and then beat her black-and-blue and sedated her with an injection.
James McCord, who was convicted of conspiracy and burglary in the Watergate affair on behalf of Attorney General Mitchell and President Nixon, told a reporter: "Martha's story is true — basically, the woman was kidnapped. . . . they kept her locked up and she began to be afraid for her life."
Earlier, I mentioned that King would be repaid for his involvement in Mitchell's cover-up: Today, King is the U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic, a post Donald Trump appointed him to in July of 2017 and Mitch McConnell's Senate confirmed him to on October 5, 2017.
John Mitchell went to prison for his work for Nixon, although he continued to pull political strings from inside his prison cell. There's something about Republican attorneys general that makes this kind of rulebreaking a pattern.
Barr's latest cover-up
Even more brazen than John Mitchell, Barr may today be pushing the Justice Department to use its investigative power to punish the president's political enemies and cover up Trump's crimes.
First, Barr lied to the American press and public about the contents of Robert Mueller's report on at least 10 instances of criminal obstruction of justice by Trump, and multiple efforts to collude with foreign governments to become president. Barr is still hiding grand jury testimony that many speculate could land Trump and his co-conspirators in prison.
Barr's Justice Department conducted investigations of Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation, and James Comey, and Barr had one of his prosecutors dig into the whistleblowers' sources who spoke to Robert Mueller about Trump's multiple attempts to collude with foreign governments, including Russia, to steal the 2016 election.
Lev Parnas, like Hitchcock's "man who knew too much," apparently fears that he's going to be next and, because he actually participated in well-documented crimes at Trump's request, he may end up with a long and particularly brutal prison term—or worse.
Barr also appears to be the key to Trump's power at the moment. He covered up the gravity of the Muller investigation, nearly successfully hid the whistleblower's report, and could be covering up dozens of other things that we don't know about because… he's covering them up.
As Parnas said to Maddow, "The difference between why Trump is so powerful now, and he wasn't as powerful in '16 and '17… [is that] he became that powerful when he got William Barr."
Democrats in the House who are considering where to next turn their investigation lens may well find a rich vein to mine in looking at Barr.
That is assuming, of course, that potential anti-Trump, anti-Barr witnesses like Parnas don't start dying in federal custody like the man Bill Barr's dad hired, Jeffrey Epstein. Were that to happen, congressional investigators may be left with no witnesses to interrogate.