Donald Trump appeared certain that, at long last, he had evidence of a nefarious election scheme. As the president told the public, a handful of ballots in a Republican-friendly county in Pennsylvania had been thrown in the trash, when they should've been counted for the GOP ticket. The claims were soon elevated by the White House, the Trump campaign, the Justice Department, and conservative media.
It wasn't long, however, before the story faded -- because it wasn't quite true. There was an administrative error in Luzerne County, Pa., but there was no evidence of a local conspiracy to rig the election for Joe Biden. Those looking for proof to substantiate the president's conspiracy theories would have to look elsewhere.
But the story did raise an entirely different set of questions, not about election officials in a midsize county in northeastern Pennsylvania, but about Attorney General Bill Barr.
Why did the Republican lawyer brief Trump directly on the unimportant case? Why did Barr's Justice Department ignore its own guidelines and issue a statement about an incomplete investigation? Why did the DOJ statement include factual errors?
There's no reason to be coy. The attorney general has made little effort to hide his efforts to politicize his office and federal law enforcement, and the Luzerne County incident appeared to be part of Barr's election-season tactics.
Making matters worse, of course, is the scope of these tactics. Politico connected the dots this way:
The prosecution of Michael Flynn. A Senate investigation into the provenance of the Steele Dossier. The nascent federal probe of discarded absentee ballots in Pennsylvania. In recent days, the Justice Department has declassified or disclosed sensitive materials related to each of these proceedings that, on the surface, have little to do with each other. Yet within hours, President Donald Trump had weaponized each to boost his reelection campaign.
Last week, James D. Herbert, a current federal prosecutor, wrote in the Boston Globe about "the unprecedented politicization of the office of the attorney general," adding that Barr "acts as though his job is to serve only the political interests of Donald J. Trump. This is a dangerous abuse of power.... For 30 years I have been proud to say I work for the Department of Justice, but the current attorney general has brought shame on the department he purports to lead."
He's hardly alone. Gene Rossi, a former federal prosecutor from Virginia, told Politico, "The attorney general is working hand in glove with the White House and the Trump re-election campaign."
The handling of the Luzerne County matter was especially egregious, though it might be easier to overlook if it were an isolated incident. It's not. Vox had a related report along these lines:
Most notably, a US attorney made a vague, partially inaccurate statement Thursday about problems with a handful of military ballots in one Pennsylvania county.... Also Thursday, Barr released some information that he suggested cast further doubt on a major source for the Steele dossier, sending it in a letter to Senate Judiciary Chair Lindsey Graham (R-SC).... Meanwhile, in advance of a hearing next week at which a judge will consider whether the Justice Department can withdraw the false statements case to which Michael Flynn pleaded guilty, the Department sent new internal FBI documents about the case to Flynn's lawyers, and released notes from a recent interview of an FBI agent who worked on the case and says he was skeptical about it.
In case this isn't obvious, these were developments that unfolded over the course of a couple of days last week. They came on the heels of the attorney general giving a speech in which he effectively endorsed greater politicization of federal prosecutions.
Which came on the heels of Barr peddling demonstrable falsehoods related to election irregularities.
Which came on the heels of the Justice Department taking over Trump's defense in a case filed by a woman who accused the president of sexual assault.
Which came on the heels of Barr vacillating on whether it's wrong for the president to encourage his followers to vote twice.
Which came on the heels of the attorney general intervening directly in a series of cases of political significance to Trump.
A few months ago, 2,300 former Justice Department and FBI officials -- from both Republican and Democratic administrations -- publicly called for Barr's resignation. It's not too late for that number to grow.