A Quiet Place: DOJ
Merrick Garland and the democracy-killing sound of silence.
I CAN ONLY IMAGINE what a mess Bill Barr made of the Justice Department. How much damage he did. How much of the infrastructure of that hallowed institution needs to be repaired before full function can resume. I can only imagine it, because no one working there has told me. On this topic, and almost every other, Merrick Garland, the Attorney General, has been silent.
In our discussion on the PREVAIL podcast, Glenn Kirschner, the longtime former federal prosecutor who worked with Robert Mueller, sang Garland’s praises, describing him as a “quiet storm.” That may well be true—but so far, we’ve only seen the “quiet” part. Once again, we are saddled with a supposed bringer of justice who leaves us in the dark.
If it feels like we’ve seen this movie before, that’s because we have. A couple of times.
It began with FBI Director James Comey, back in 2016. The Bureau knew that there were active investigations into both of the presidential candidates: Hillary Clinton, for using a private server to send some classified emails, and Donald John Trump, for working with the Russians to ratfuck the election.
Comey should have either told us about both investigations or followed the Bureau’s “Glomar” policy—We can neither confirm nor deny—and spoken of neither. Instead, he chose to notify Congress about only the first investigation. He did not hip anyone to the fact that Trump’s campaign was coordinating election strategy with the Kremlin, because—and this was stupid at the time and looks even more idiotic in hindsight—he felt that doing so would have jeopardized the investigation. In other words, to protect the FBI’s sacred detective work, he clammed up as a known Russian asset and inveterate tool of organized crime took the White House.
“Of course, we don’t ordinarily tell Congress about ongoing investigations,” Comey wrote in a letter to his charges at the FBI, explaining his catastrophic decision to write the HRC memo that gave Trump the election, “but here I feel an obligation to do so given that I testified repeatedly in recent months that our investigation was completed. I also think it would be misleading to the American people were we not to supplement the record. At the same time, however, given that we don’t know the significance of this newly discovered collection of emails, I don’t want to create a misleading impression. In trying to strike that balance, in a brief letter and in the middle of an election season, there is significant risk of being misunderstood, but I wanted you to hear directly from me about it.”
That sounds good on paper, but for one glaring problem: In October of 2016, as previously mentioned, the FBI was actively investigating 1) Hillary Clinton’s missing emails, and 2) Donald Trump’s ties to Russia. Comey chose only to inform the public about the former. How exactly was it not “misleading…the American people…not to supplement the record” about Trump’s clandestine dealings with Moscow? Isn’t collusion with a hostile foreign power a bigger deal than email mismanagement?
The difference boiled down to the Bureau’s “Glomar” policy. Comey was following protocol for national security investigations. At the time, I was one of many wags on Twitter explaining this to everyone. I was more than willing to be patient, if patience would result in justice. Only, as it turned out, the Director did have the authority to discuss whatever the fuck he wanted to. He “Glomar’d” right until the point where he decided not to. When he testified before Congress on March 20, 2017, he abandoned “Glomar” and confirmed that the FBI was indeed “investigating the Russian government's efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election and that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia's efforts.”
If Comey could shit-can “Glomar” on March 20, 2017, in a breach of Bureau protocol concerning on-going investigations, why did he not do so five months sooner, when it might have done some good? It’s not like Trump deserved the benefit of the doubt. Comey must have known that Donnie Two Scoops was a creature of organized crime and a Confidential Informant. All he had to do was read Trump’s FBI file. But the Director did not so much as hint at the mob ties. We still haven’t heard boo about that.
It’s funny: Trump’s collaborators cooked up the “Deep State” narrative, claiming the federal agencies were out to get their boy. If anything, the opposite appears to have been the case.
After Comey was sacked by Trump—“He was crazy,” the President told his Russian handlers in the Oval Office the next day, “a real nut job. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s been taken off.”—Robert Mueller, the highly respected former FBI Director, was tapped to investigate Trump’s ties to Russia. In the months that followed, we were treated to the indictments of key Trump associates like Mike Flynn, Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, and Michael Cohen, as well as regular bursts of breaking news from intrepid national security reporters. But when it came to interface with the American people, Mueller and his team were like a nuclear submarine, completely silent.
Yes, Mueller’s actions spoke volumes, and yes, the work of the Special Counsel’s Office was exemplary. But by remaining hush-hush, Mueller and his team ceded control of the narrative to Trump and his collaborators, as well as conspiracy theorists of every stripe. Those of us trying to stay hopeful, to combat the Trumpist gaslighting, had to rely on blind (or deaf, as it were) faith. We had no help at all from the inside. Old School Mueller did not comprehend the same thing Comey did not comprehend: this is an information war. The long silence, and the disastrous public appearance when the Special Counsel finally appeared before Congress, opened the door for corrupt Attorney General Bill Barr to dull the impact of the report with one clumsy memo. Two years of hard work down the drain, because of the silence.
The irony here is, the quiet surrounding the Special Counsel’s Office didn’t help the investigation in any way that I can tell. I published my Trump/Russia book, Dirty Rubles, in May of 2018. The Mueller Report came out 11 months later. There was little in that document that we didn’t already know, that good reporters hadn’t already figured out. Mueller’s “tight lips” policy did nothing but play right into Bill Barr’s hands.
There was not as much ballyhoo around Volume 5 of the Senate Intelligence Report on Russian Interference in the 2016 Election—which proved to be a far more damning document than even the Mueller Report, even though the press barely covered it—and here again, the silence was not helpful. The Republicans expelled Richard Burr from his position as committee chair right after he signed off on the thing, and his replacement, the feckless traitor Marco Rubio, did to Volume 5 what Bill Barr did to the Mueller Report.
That’s three times in the last five years that we’ve been told to have faith in the system, to believe that justice is coming, to understand that this stuff has to happen quietly, and yadda yadda yadda. And three times the hard work of the good guys has been neutralized in the court of public opinion because of the silence.
MAGA is fucking loud. All the time. You don’t combat your neighbor blasting Slayer through giant PA speakers by putting your own music on mute.
And look, I understand that there are things Merrick Garland legitimately can’t discuss. Well and good. FDR didn’t talk about troop movements and military strategy in his wartime fireside chats—he reassured us, because he knew how important his voice was for popular morale. It is not an attack on the Department of Justice or the FBI to demand more and better communication, as some benighted commentators believe. On the contrary, more and better communication helps ensure that the hard work being done by the DOJ and the Bureau will not be done in vain, and for naught.
To his credit, Garland appears to be more adaptable than Mueller and Comey. This past Friday, perhaps bowing to public pressure, he gave a policy address, the first of his tenure, on how he intends to protect voting rights at the DOJ. The remarks delivered that day are well worth reading, as he provides a history of U.S. voter suppression that does not shy away from the white supremacist fuckery that went on for decades after Reconstruction.
This was a nice start, but we need more. We need Garland to talk about the Insurrection, the previous administration’s sabotage of the pandemic response, and the revelation that Trump used the Justice Department to spy on his political rivals (a topic he covered yesterday, albeit in private meetings with members of the press). We need him to talk to us often, as Roosevelt did during the war, as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo did during the quarantine. We have been through major collective trauma because of Trump. We need reassurance by our nation’s top lawman that he appreciates the urgency of the moment, and that the villains who did so much damage to our country won’t get away with it.
This is an information war. The good guys are losing. The sooner the Attorney General understands this, the more swiftly justice will come. Democracy dies not in darkness, but in silence. Sometimes even quiet storms have to make a little noise.
CORRECTION: I originally wrote that Glenn Kirschner said “quiet killer,” not “quiet storm.” I apologize to Glenn for my error.
Photo credit: DOJ. Attorney General Garland delivered remarks to DOJ employees highlighting his goals and priorities on his first day on the job.