Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
Season 7 Episode 28
Aired on November 1, 2020
Main segment: Trump’s response to COVID-19 (“Coronavirus XI”)
Other segments: William Barr, and unitary executive theory
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[John] Hi there! Welcome to the show! Still coming to you from this white void, which, I admit, looks like the inside of a ghost’s spooky rectum. And it’s been a busy week, with the two presidential campaigns making their final arguments, and Jared Kushner — Harvard’s shiniest mistake — deciding to make this last-ditch appeal to black voters.
[Jared Kushner] One thing we’ve seen in a lot of the black community, which is mostly democrat, is that president Trump’s policies are the policies that can help people break out of the problems that they’re complaining about, but he can’t want them to be successful more than they want to be successful.
[John] Well, fuck you, Jared. I guess we should all be applauding you for wanting to be born to a billionaire real-estate developer, then wanting your father to pledge $2.5 million dollars to Harvard not long before you were admitted, and then for wanting to marry the daughter of the world’s most successful liar. If only more black fetuses had your ambition and drive, maybe they’d be as successful as you.
But look, the fact is, the election is now just two days away. And because of that, our show tonight is going to be a bit different. Because instead of just having one main story, we’re actually going to have two, each focusing on a different aspect of the Trump presidency. And our first story concerns the Coronavirus. It’s the Home Alone 2 of viruses: as it’s amplified the dangers of air travel, lots of it took place in New York, and right in the middle, for no good reason, is Donald fucking Trump. And I know that the fact we’re about to talk about this at all, would make Trump roll his eyes.
[President Trump] That’s all I hear about now. Turn on television, “Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid.” A plane goes down, 500 people dead, they don’t talk about it. “Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid.” By the way, on November 4th, you won’t hear about it anymore. Covid! Covid!
[John] Look, believe me, I’d love nothing more than to not talk about Covid, and instead return to subjects we’d normally cover on this show, like scented candle fraud or alpaca veterinarian malpractice. Unfortunately, I can’t do that when so many Americans are still dying of “Covid, Covid” every day.
For many, Trump’s handling of the coronavirus is going to be a significant factor in how they vote, and to listen to him, that’s really not a problem. He’s labeled his handling of the pandemic as “tremendous,” “a-plus,” and said “nothing more could have been done.” Which is obviously ridiculous, as America has just 4% of the global population, and yet, about 20% of global cases. And if you’re thinking, “oh, come on — who doesn’t know Trump fucked up this pandemic?,” The truth is, a lot of voters are more than willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
How do you feel president Trump has done in handling the pandemic?
The best he can for something that’s so somewhat unknown.
I think he’s probably doing the best he can right now. I mean, there is so much mixed information out there and trying to decipher what’s fact and what’s fiction.
The pandemic? Not his fault. And everything that’s gone along with it? Not his fault. He’s doing the best he can.
[John] Is he? I guess that depends — do you mean he’s doing the best that any president can, or the best that he can? Because if it’s the second one, you might actually be right. We should probably all be grateful he hasn’t tried bottling his urine and selling it as Trump immunity juice. And look, all presidents, whoever they are, tend to face a defining crisis. And this was unquestionably Trump’s. But his response been such a disaster that there are massive fuckups you may’ve already forgotten. Remember that time he suggested we should leave American citizens on a cruise ship ravaged with coronavirus, because they’d increase the number of positive cases in the country, and he liked the numbers being where they are? That was insane, right? And we covered that on the show. In fact, we’ve talked about coronavirus a lot on the show this year. But we still thought that tonight, especially if you, or someone you know, also thinks “nothing more could have been done,” it would be worth taking a look at three crucial areas where more could very much have been done. Specifically: preparation, coordination, and communication. And let’s start with preparation. Because it is worth noting, previous presidents had been aware of a threat like this for years. George W. Bush demanded the government develop a pandemic response plan all the way back in 2005, and Obama created a pandemic preparedness team, and gave a speech in December of 2014 that is eerily prescient.
[President Obama] There may and likely will come a time in which we have both an airborne disease that is deadly. And in order for us to deal with that effectively, we have to put in place an infrastructure — not just here at home, but globally — that allows us to see it quickly, isolate it quickly, respond to it quickly. So that if and when a new strain of flu, like the Spanish flu, crops up five years from now or a decade from now, we’ve made the investment.
[John] Wow. Those are some shockingly specific predictions. What else did he say there? “In exactly five years, the warriors are gonna blow a 3-1 lead to the Cavs, and Lebron’s gonna have a chase down block that makes your soul jump out of your body. Also, Kumail Nanjiani’s gonna get really jacked in a way that you don’t know quite how to feel about.
So previous presidents were well aware something like this could happen. And yet, in the years before this outbreak, Trump’s administration not only disbanded Obama’s pandemic team, they also cut CDC staff operating within China by more than two-thirds, and ended a pandemic early warning program. And even once the pandemic had begun, Trump took an appallingly long time to take it seriously. He’ll often complain — not wrongly — that China took too long to be forthright with us about the virus. But what he doesn’t mention is that once we found out about it, we acted unforgivably slowly. The first public reports of what was happening in Wuhan came on December 31st. And yet, Alex Azar, Trump’s secretary of health and human services, couldn’t get a meeting with Trump to talk about it until January 18. And even when he did, Trump apparently interrupted him to ask when flavored vaping products would be back on the market. Which, y’know… cool. Then, Trump continually implied that the virus would simply go away — despite learning on February 26 that there was community spread in the U.S. Something we might’ve known sooner, had we also not lost a month due to flaws in our testing process that we were extremely slow to fix. And yet, despite all this, Trump loves to claim that it doesn’t matter what he didn’t do — what really matters is this.
[President Trump] This country is very lucky and I’m very lucky that I put the ban on China. I swiftly implemented a travel ban on China.
[President Trump] I put in the ban on China.
[President Trump] I did the China ban.
[President Trump] We put that ban on.
[President Trump] When I put a ban on.
[President Trump] You have to remember, I put the ban on China.
[President Trump] Banned travel from China.
[President Trump] We put the ban on China.
[President Trump] I put a ban on China.
[President Trump] Ban on China.
[John] Yeah, to listen to Trump tell it, he banned travel from China, and job done. So if you’ve lost a loved one to this virus, I’ve got some great news — you didn’t! They’re completely fine! They’ve just been busy jet-setting all across the world, enjoying live performances with thousands of their closest friends, because Trump put the ban on China, and we’re all very lucky he did. But a few things about that. Because while he did indeed impose some travel restrictions on China, they took effect on February 2nd — that’s two weeks after the first known case in the U.S., And also, after 45 other countries had already done so. And this “ban” had some major exceptions — including allowing U.S. citizens, residents, and their immediate family members to still come into the country from China — meaning an additional 40,000 people came in from there during the first two months that his ban was in place. Also, we now know the virus came to the New York City area not from China, but predominantly via Europe — and yet, it took Trump an additional six weeks to place any restrictions on travelers from there. And when he finally did that, it came in a chaotic oval office speech where he falsely made it sound like some Americans wouldn’t be allowed back into the country. Which had predictable consequences.
[NBC News] Confusion leading to chaos at U.S. Airports under the administration’s European travel ban. Lines stretching for hours in New York, Dallas, and Chicago’s O’Hare.
[John] Yeah, those images don’t get any easier to look at. People panicked by Trump’s announcement rushed into airports that were not adequately prepared to safely process them, with some passengers reporting there was no hand sanitizer available, and having to share pens to fill out immigration forms. And this was before most of us knew we shouldn’t be sharing anything with anyone. Which, incidentally, is still true despite what this Coke bottle tells you. Do not share that Coke with grandma. Get her her own, and have it delivered by someone in a hazmat suit. Happy ninetieth, gammy. Try to stay safe!
So Trump’s travel ban wasn’t a ban, wasn’t early, and didn’t do what he said it did. But even if he had rolled it out perfectly, experts will tell you, if you decide to use travel restrictions, they have to be part of a comprehensive plan. Because the best they can do is delay a pandemic, not prevent it. All they’ll do is buy you a little bit of time, which is useless if you don’t then use it wisely.
Which brings us to our second point, coordination. And I shouldn’t have to remind you just how badly this administration coordinated crucial supplies, like PPE. Some medical professionals resorted to making their own, using ski goggles, snorkel masks, and garbage bags. And yet, the White House denies mishandling anything. The RNC even featured this video touting the heroism of frontline workers, including a clip of him talking to a nurse practitioner in the oval office, but if you find the raw footage of that clip, you will see the conversation they’re having is pretty revealing.
[Sophia Thomas, American Association of Nurse Practitioners President] PPE has been sporadic, but it’s been manageable and we do what we have to do.
[President Trump] Sporadic for you, but not sporadic for a lot of other people.
[Sophia Thomas] Oh, no, I agree, Mr. President.
[President Trump] Because I’ve heard the opposite. I heard that they are loaded up with, with gowns now and — you know, initially, we had nothing. We had empty cupboards. We had empty shelves. We had nothing because it wasn’t put there by the last administration.
[John] Okay, first: “sporadic for you, not sporadic for other people” is the literal definition of sporadic. And second: his complaint that he had empty cupboards and shelves is slightly undercut by the fact he’d been president for three years when that conversation took place. If you move into a new apartment and three years later, there’s still nothing in the cupboards, you don’t get to blame the previous tenant when you’re hungry. Go buy some fucking food. And it’s not like the administration wasn’t warned. Take Mike Bowen, a top executive at a PPE production company. For years, he’s been sounding the alarm that most of the U.S. mask supply now comes from abroad. And in January, seeing what was coming our way, he emailed everyone he could think of in the government, offering a clear plan to ramp up production.
[Mike Bowen] I voted for Donald Trump. I thought, you know, if I contact enough people in the administration, somebody, one of these people are going to look at this and go, “hey, this is the problem. Maybe we ought to call this guy.” And no, I couldn’t get any — I didn’t get any response there.
[John] Now, in hindsight, would warning Donald Trump have done anything? You’d get into the oval office and go, “sir, a quarter million Americans are gonna die!” And he’d say, “like, me die? Or just, like, random people?” And you’d go, “well, Herman Cain,” and he’d say, “hmm, not really seeing the problem here,” and you’d say “it might cost you the election” and he’d say, “but I’ll still have my fans and rallies, right?” And you’d say, “of course, they’ll never abandon you even if you’re actively killing them,” and he’d go, “okay, not really seeing what the warning’s about here, please leave, it’s time for me to watch my shows.” Bowen couldn’t have been more explicit about what needed to happen. He told government contacts that placing large, non-cancelable orders would allow him to ramp up production immediately, which was important because — and I quote — I think we’re in “deep shit.” But the administration dawdled, and Bowen later testified before congress about what that delay meant.
[Mike Bowen] I’m getting 500 to 1,000 emails a day. I’m getting emails from people, not businesses. And I am getting emails from moms. I’m getting emails from old people. “Please, send me masks,”
You make a product that can protect people.
[Mike Bowen] I can’t help these — I can’t help all these people.
[John] Yeah, that must have been incredibly frustrating. Because he offered the administration a clear way to at least mitigate the damage, and they didn’t move fast enough and decisions like that meant that suddenly — and entirely avoidably — we had to scramble for essential equipment at the same time as almost everyone else on earth. And for all Trump’s supposed expertise as a businessman, his administration’s approach to managing the supply chain was a total shambles. At first, Trump encouraged states to “get it themselves” — pitting them against each other and essentially starting a bidding war. And later, Jared fucking Kushner was made the white house lead for something called “the supply chain task force.” At one point, it tried to coordinate things directly, with Jared pulling in a group of mostly young, untrained volunteers to help vet leads on PPE. Here’s one of them, describing what happened after an initial pep talk about the importance of tracking down equipment.
[“Totally Under Control” (2020) Courtesy of Neon]
[Max Kennedy Jr., Volunteer, Supply Chain Task Force] Everyone stood up and filed into different offices, and I remember the only people left were the volunteers. We thought we would be auxiliary support for an existing procurement team that just needed to be expanded as quickly as possible, and we would do data entry for contracts. And instead, we were the team. I think when people imagined the federal government response in the war room, they thought it would be this big, you know, energized group of experts, not ten 20-year-old volunteers.
[John] That really does not sound good. And I’m not saying young people are all dumb idiots. Mozart composed a minuet at age six. This guy [photo of Mark Zuckerberg] created the downfall of society at age 19. You’d just hope that everyone on the federal task force would have resource-management experience that goes beyond “I played “Settlers of Catan” at my friend Topher’s one night, and I actually did pretty well.”
And the thing is, one of the best ways not to run short on PPE is to not have mass community spread. And one of the best ways to achieve that is by promoting strong public-health guidelines. Which brings us to our final point here, communication. Because Trump has repeatedly undermined public messaging, from the very start, despite the fact that — as we now know — he knew extremely early on just how bad things could get.
[President Trump] You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed. And so that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than your, you know, your — even your strenuous flus.
[NBC News] That’s what he said privately, but in public later that month, he was still downplaying the severity and spread of the virus.
[President Trump] This is a flu. This is like a flu.
[John] Yeah. Trump just lied, which I know at this point isn’t something I should have to say, it seems like the kind of thing we all already know, like “puppies are good” and “Geppetto definitely built Pinocchio for weird sex stuff.” That really shouldn’t be a surprise. Be honest: if you lived next door to a bachelor who was aged somewhere between 70 and 1,000, whose only friend was a fish, whose house was full of not-for-sale, handmade clocks going off at different times and one day he said “good news, this little wooden boy is Pinocchio, he is my son,” you’d have exactly two thoughts: one — he’s fuckin’ that puppet, and two — we have to move. The guy whose house sounds like a bomb built himself a son. We have to move. No judgment. He fucks that puppet, it’s not a crime. There’s no law written down anywhere that says Geppetto’s not allowed to fuck a puppet he made while his fish watches. I’m not calling the cops here. I’m just saying I’m moving away from Geppetto.
And yet, even as it became clear to everyone that this was very much more than the flu, Trump constantly undermined his own administration’s advice. On April 3rd, the CDC finally advised that the public wear masks. But Trump immediately undercut it in the very press conference that news was announced.
[President Trump] The CDC is advising the use of non-medical cloth face covering as an additional voluntary public health measure. So it’s voluntary; you don’t have to do it. They suggested for a period of time. But this is voluntary. I don’t think I’m going to be doing it.
[John] And just like that, wearing a mask was a political issue. Trump himself didn’t wear a mask in public until July, which is obviously dangerous. You can’t effectively convince people to do something while refusing to do it yourself. It’s why soulcycle instructors are on a bike like everyone else, instead of just yelling “pedal faster!” While lounging on a bean bag and eating a bucket of hot wings. It’s about setting a good example. And the thing is, Americans were listening to him. Listen to these people just a few weeks later.
It’s just like the flu, right?
Well, it’s not just like the flu. It’s far more contagious.
I mean, well, I know, but people die from the flu also.
And far more deadly. They do die from the flu.
So to me, that’s just the way I look at it.
I mean, if he’s not wearing a mask, I’m not gonna wear a mask. If he’s not worried, I’m not worried.
[John] Okay. I understand that impulse, but “if he’s not worried, I’m not worried,” is a weird thing to say when he is the president, surrounded by 24/7 security and a team of doctors, and you are not even surrounded by a shirt.
It’s been genuinely remarkable just how consistently Trump has undercut public-health messaging. Over a decade ago, the CDC actually developed guidelines for how leaders should communicate during a crisis. They are: be first. Be right. Be credible. Express empathy. Promote action. And show respect. And I’m not saying the CDC has been perfect during this pandemic, but Trump did the precise opposite of every single one of those. And on the empathy one — which should be the hardest to do badly, he’s been borderline sociopathic. Because think about what medical professionals have had to go through at this year, especially at the start of this crisis. In New York, hospitals had giant refrigerated trucks that served as makeshift morgues, and there were mass graves dug on Hart Island, even as hospital workers broke down in video testimonials. It was utterly brutal. And with that in mind, let’s go back to that oval-office meeting Trump had with nurses — you know, the one they used in the RNC video. Just watch Trump respond to someone citing concerns about what his colleagues were going through.
[Ernest J. Grant, President, American Nurses Association] And if I may add, one big concern that I have is the post-traumatic trauma that a lot of the nurses and doctors and other members of the healthcare team will be facing in the future. You know, they’re seeing death —
[President Trump] A lot. A lot.
[Ernest J. Grant] Probably three or four times the average than what they normally would.
[President Trump] Yeah. It’s a lot of death.
[Ernest J. Grant] Yes. Yes, sir.
[President Trump] There’s no question about it. And, by the way, while we’re at it, you can pass these pens around, okay? You can pass them around. Here you go. I got some for the other side. We don’t want to forget them, Marty.
[John] I know, after four years, it is hard for anything Trump does to shock you anymore. But it is worth making sure that that still does. That man was in the middle of talking about his peers’ PTSD and the president cut him off so he could offer everyone pens. Pens. He wasn’t even listening, he was just sitting there waiting for his turn to speak so he could do his pen thing. Is there anything more grim than that? I mean, I guess he could have not offered them pens. But would that have been worse? Better? It’s honestly difficult to say. It’s even more difficult to write a joke off of. “Oh, Trump must be great for you comedians, right?” Yeah, not really! This has been a fucking nightmare!
And all of this — the lack of preparation, coordination, and communication — has had real-world effects. And I know Trump badly wants everyone to believe that nothing more could have been done. But that’s just not true. Other countries have done more and suffered less. We have four times more people than Germany, but 17 times the Covid cases. And we have three and a half times more people than Vietnam, but 7500 times the Covid cases. This wasn’t inevitable.
And look, I shouldn’t have to take 20 minutes to tell you that Trump mismanaged the pandemic. In a lot of ways, the answer to the question, “has Trump done a good job handling this pandemic” is “well, he got the disease, so, y’know…”
And the thing is, there are so many more terrible moments we haven’t had time to cover. From using this racist term multiple times, to never once releasing a comprehensive federal strategy for fighting Covid, to removing a watchdog overseeing $2 trillion in Covid relief, to saying he asked his people to slow down testing — which his people then tried to pass off as him kidding, to which he responded, “I don’t kid,” to baselessly claiming that doctors are inflating coronavirus death counts for money, to suggesting sunlight and ingesting disinfectants could help cure the virus, to repeatedly undermining the nation’s top infectious disease expert. At one point, he retweeted “fire Fauci,” and got so openly jealous of him that when Fauci was invited to throw the opening pitch at a nationals game, Trump announced he’d be doing the same for the Yankees, surprising them, since they’d not actually invited him.
And look, if Biden is elected, it’s not like he’s going to magically end this pandemic, but he’ll at least take it seriously. And it’s pretty bleak that that alone sounds good, but it really does. Because at this point, Trump is clearly bored of hearing about Covid, and I am sorry about that. But you know what’s been completely exhausting for the rest of us? Worrying about it all the time. For what it’s worth, multiple members of our staff were sick earlier this year, and it was heart-wrenching being constantly concerned about their health. And that concern hasn’t gone away. There are long-term and devastating effects for many who have recovered that we still don’t fully understand. People who are sick and dying can’t see their families. And cases are now spiking to record highs all over the country. This virus has taken so much from us. Our peace of mind, our routines, and nearly a quarter of a million Americans. And it’s frankly pathetic that in response, the only things Trump has offered people in this country over the past eight months are damaging lies, staggering incompetence, and occasionally — when he’s feeling generous — some shitty fucking pens. And now, this.
Announcer: and now… Our annual look at what happens when local news and Halloween collide.
The best way to spread the studio 10 cheer is by going as elf for Halloween this year! Nailed it! Happy Halloween, y’all!
Happy Halloween. I am dead.
We are a formal apology.
We are a formal apology.
I am a cactus. [Laughter]
I am a hand sanitizer.
Who’s Uncle Sam? Me.
Carole Baskin here. Oh, no, my babies.
She is going to keep us in check nationwide. Looking good. There you go, Phoenix.
How’s your ‘stache? Did you grow that from yesterday?
How is the jalapeno?
Welcome, welcome, welcome to “last week today,” I am John Oliver. Stamps.
[John] Moving on. Our first story was about how Trump handles a crisis, what he does when the world throws him a curveball. But our second one is going to be about how this administration governs on a day-to-day basis, and importantly, how it could govern if given a second term. Because I’d now like to talk about William Barr, Trump’s Attorney General, and constipated Charmin Bear. And let’s immediately answer the question that’s undoubtedly top of your mind: “do you have a clip of him playing the bagpipes?” Well, relax. The answer is yes.
[John] You’re welcome. Now, does that tell us anything about Barr, aside from the fact that he’s the kind of guy who, given the option to learn literally any musical instrument, actively chose the bagpipes, which is basically a noisy sex doll for octupses? No, it didn’t. Did we have to show you anyway? Absolutely. Because any time we have footage of the subject of one of our stories playing the bagpipes, we will show you a clip of that happening. That’s not just a promise; it’s a bagpipe promise. [Bagpipes play] exactly. Now, since becoming A.G., Barr has been in the news constantly, and almost never for good reasons. In just the past few months, he has, among other things, sown distrust in mail-in voting, and also dismissed public-health measures in the middle of a pandemic in the grossest possible way.
[William Barr] You know, putting a national lockdown, stay at home orders is like house arrest. It’s — you know, other than slavery, which was a different kind of restraint, this is the greatest intrusion on civil liberties in American history. [Applause]
[John] Now I know that’s ridiculous for, let’s say, a hundred different reasons, but do spare a thought there for his description of slavery as “a different kind of restraint.” That phrase is doing a lot of heavy lifting there, much like slaves did when — and this is true — they were literal slaves. And what is particularly striking about Barr’s extreme behavior over the last year and a half is that, when Trump first nominated him, the news was basically greeted with relief.
[GMA, 2018] Barr will be seen as a relatively noncontroversial choice, an establishment choice.
[CNN Live] William Barr is sort of an old establishment hand.
[MSNBC Live] He’s an institutionalist. He’s a grown up.
[MSNBC Live] He’s an adult, he’s a grown up.
[CNN Live] This is someone who is an adult in the room.
[FOX News] I think someone like Bill Barr, who has experience, seems like he would be a better adult in the room for us.
[John] “Adult in the room?” Look, not only is “being an adult” an absurdly low bar to set for the highest levels of government, but it also implies that the main problem with Trump is that he is childish. And I know that it makes for a fun balloon now and again, but at its core, “I wish that white nationalist with an authoritarian streak would act his age” is sort of missing the point here.
But you can kind of see why people were so willing to embrace Barr. He had previously served as attorney general under George H.W. Bush, so he at least knew what the job involved. And his two immediate predecessors as Trump’s A.G. were the racist goblin formerly known as Jeff Sessions, and then, for a few crazy months, Matthew Whitaker, a man who was once embroiled in a scandal over a patent company he was involved in, whose clients included the inventor of a “masculine toilet” for the “well-endowed.” So yeah, by that standard, Barr was the adult in the room. But it’s worth remembering, some adults are assholes. And Barr is one of them, but he’s very much more. He’s a driven, deeply moralistic man with extreme views on executive power, actually making him one of the more dangerous figures in the Trump administration, which I know is saying something. But if Trump gets a second term, Barr is only going to be more dangerous going forward.
So tonight, let’s talk about Bill Barr. And let’s start with the fact that, from a very early age, he was simply a nightmare. Here is his old boss, at Barr’s swearing-in, sharing a fun anecdote from his childhood.
[George H.W. Bush] The newspapers report Bill Barr was giving Eisenhower for president speeches when he was in kindergarten. And his parents passed along the word that young Bill was discoursing about separation of powers before he gave up his pacifier.
[John] What a weird thing to share on someone’s first day in a new job. “Hey, everyone, please welcome Bill — he’s from New York, and fun fact, as a child, he was a little narc who devoted himself to an unhealthy worship of authority instead of cultivating any meaningful relationships. We’re so glad to have Bill on board.”
Veneration of authority has been a consistent throughline of Barr’s life. At Columbia university in the anti-war ’60s, he stood out for being incredibly pro-law-enforcement — so much so, that he brought police coffee as they encountered protesters, and once got into a fistfight with students who were demonstrating on campus, a story he told “The New York Times” while “letting out a big laugh.” And that is just sad. You’re supposed to tell your grandkids fun, inspiring college stories about how you burnt your draft card or went streaking across campus, but Barr’s wild tales seem to be more like, “one time, I licked the boot of the state so hard, I was shittin’ aglets for a week. Best four years of my life.”
So it’s frankly not surprising that, at just age 41, after quickly climbing the ranks at the D.O.J, Barr was picked as Bush’s A.G., and immediately made a name for himself as an absolute hard-liner on immigration, signing off on a mass-surveillance program, and having a view of criminal justice perhaps best summed up by a memo his D.O.J Produced titled, “the case for more incarceration.” So he presented himself as a strong proponent of law and order. Don’t do the crime, if you can’t do the time, if Bill Barr has anything to say about it. Although interestingly, that philosophy had some exceptions when it came to his own bosses.
[CNN, 2019] “New York Times” columnist William Safire, a conservative republican, often referred to Barr then not as Attorney General, but as the “cover-up general,” suggesting he covered up bush’s role in Iraq-gate, burying the investigation of how the Bush administration allegedly helped finance Saddam Hussein’s weapons.
[John] Yeah. That was a major scandal at the time, and yet, Barr refused Congress’s request to appoint an independent counsel. And not just that — he also supported the pardon of six defendants in the Iran Contra scandal. So his “cover-up general” nickname is really pretty fair, in that it takes something he is — attorney general — and adds an apt descriptor. The same way Steve Mnuchin’s nickname is Secretary Sprinkler. Why? Because he’s secretary of treasury, and he makes things wet. Not a dry seat in the house when the ole’ squirt locker opens his hot little mouth. You see it, right? Everyone definitely sees it.
And it’s not just that Barr was forgiving of past presidential excesses. He also worked to expand executive power, from advising Bush that he had the legal authority to wage war against Iraq without congress’ consent, to writing a legal opinion that said the FBI could seize a suspect abroad and return them to the U.S. without first obtaining the foreign state’s consent. And who’d have thought that just 30 years later, Barr would get to work for a man who shared his exact views on consent? And at this point, it’s probably worth pausing for a moment to talk about the basis for a lot of Barr’s actions. Because he is a fervent believer in something known as the unitary executive theory, although he wouldn’t like me even bringing this up.
[William Barr] One of the more amusing aspects of modern progressive polemic is their breathless attacks on the “unitary executive theory.” Ahh! [Laughs]
[John] What are you doing? He not only belittled an extremely reasonable legal concern, he topped it off with the “ahhh!” Of a creepy uncle trying to interact with his baby niece who, even though she’s pre-verbal, already knows this guy is bad news.
But the reason people breathlessly attack Barr’s embrace of the unitary executive theory is that it takes a lot of breath to explain just how wrong and dangerous it is. Very basically, the theory holds that the president has virtually complete and total executive power, and some go further, arguing that the mainstream understanding of the separation of power — that the three coequal branches of government check and balance each other — is wrong. And instead, that each branch has near-total authority over its own domain. But Barr goes even further than that, once arguing that the only checks on the president should be through the election process or the impeachment process, and that is it, which is pretty startling, because that interpretation gives the president an enormous amount of leeway. Although, as Barr tells it, George H.W. Bush was actually a little more hesitant, telling him, “I don’t want you stretching, I think the way to advance executive power is to wait and see, move gradually.”
So Barr didn’t really get a chance to fully test his belief that the president answers to absolutely nobody, until, that is, this guy moved into the white house. And pretty soon, Barr seemed eager to get back into the game. In June 2018, he sent the D.O.J an unsolicited memo criticizing the Mueller investigation, which is basically a lawyer’s version of sliding into Trump’s DMS. And in it, Barr argued that Mueller’s core premise — that the president acts “corruptly” if he attempts to influence a proceeding in which his own conduct is being scrutinized — is untenable, because it would violate article ii of the constitution, which places no limits on the president’s authority to interfere with matters that concern his own conduct. Now that is an extreme interpretation of the law with potentially massive implications, and yet, in his confirmation hearings, Barr went to great lengths to make it seem palatable. At one point, he employed one of his signature moves: using boring but smart-sounding legalese to cover up a batshit proposition. He even lectured the panel about what the word “corruptly” actually means.
[William Barr] What it means is, using in the 19th century sense, it meant to influence in — in a way that changes something that’s good and fit to something that’s bad and unfit — namely, the corruption of evidence or the corruption of a decision maker. That’s what the word “corruptly” means, because once you dissociate it from that, it really means — very hard to discern what it means. It means bad. What does “bad” mean?
[John] Uh, bad. It means bad. Babies and dogs know that. But that is almost an impressive amount of pseudo-intellectual nonsense there. I kind of wanted him to keep going. “What does “bad” mean? What does any word mean? Is speech itself not merely a collection of sounds, and in that sense, specifically the 12th century sense, isn’t “bad” simply a noise to which we have ascribed meaning? “Bad” is a human construct, but from a purely objective standpoint, it has no more meaning than the sound “plorfbor” or “glopnum.” It’s a vocal noise and nothing more. Anyway, that is why I think the president should be allowed to be a tyrant.” And the thing is, if you strip all of that rhetorical bluster away, the argument you’re basically left with is this.
[President Trump] Article II allows me to do whatever I want.
[President Trump] It’s a thing called article II. Nobody ever mentions article II.
[WH. GOV, 2019]
[President Trump] Then I have an article II, where I have the right to do whatever I want as president, but I don’t even talk about that.
[John] That’s right. He has the right to do whatever he wants, but he doesn’t even talk about it. Which you have to admit is pretty cool of him. It’s what leadership is all about. As Teddy Roosevelt once said, “carry a big stick and speak loudly about how softly you speak about what a big stick you’re carrying.”
And while Trump has been grumbling lately that Barr should’ve done more to punish comes to playing defense for Trump, Barr has been relentless. He famously provided an exculpatory summary of Mueller’s report weeks before making it publicly available. And since then, his D.O.J has suggested a lighter sentence for Roger Stone, is trying to drop the charges against Michael Flynn — who, remember, had pled guilty — removed an attorney from office who was investigating Trump’s associates, sued John Bolton to try and stop the release of his book, and at one point, tried to have the U.S. government replace Trump as the defendant in a defamation suit arising from Trump’s statement that a woman who had accused him of rape was “not my type.” All of which is definitely what the founders had in mind when they drafted article II.
So you can see why some have argued that Barr is Trump’s dream A.G. But more interestingly, Trump may also be Barr’s dream president, someone who is the ideal vessel for Barr’s decades-long pursuit of a unitary executive. And not just that — because Trump may also give Barr a chance to push his uncompromising moral vision onto the rest of the country. And it is uncompromising. Barr blames what he sees as society’s ills on moral decay. He once said, in an attack on the liberalism of the ’60s, “we see around us the grim harvest of the permissive society: broken homes, fatherless children, widespread drug addiction, teenage pregnancy, over a million abortions a year, crack babies, and drug wars.” And time has not moderated his views, especially when it comes to criminal justice. When protests erupted this summer in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, he repeatedly said that systemic racism in police departments does not exist. And late last year, seemed to threaten communities who even dared to protest against the police.
[Bill Barr, 2019] They have to start showing, more than they do, the respect and support that law enforcement deserves. And if communities don’t give that support and respect, they might find themselves without the police protection they need.
[John] Yeah, that’s not how it should work, Bill. A community shouldn’t earn protection by respecting the police. Police should earn respect by protecting the community. Because one, they work for us. And two, they work for us! At his core, Barr is clearly the same kid who took so much joy in beating up protestors at Columbia, only now he has the force of the federal government at his disposal. And he has been willing to use it.
[abc, 2020] Police forcibly removing demonstrators Monday to clear a path for president Trump to walk to saint John’s church, damaged by arson, for a photo op that sparked outrage. The A.G. was there, too, and the Trump administration says he gave the order to increase the secure perimeter around the white house. But now Barr says it was not his call to use aggressive measures. “I’m not involved in giving tactical commands like that,” he told the associated press. Adding, his attitude was, “get it done,” but he didn’t say, “go do it.”
[John] Okay, that is clearly unbelievably weaselly, but I will say, I’m glad that someone finally found the perfect words to describe the role I believe the queen played in Diana’s death. Maybe she didn’t say “go do it,” but her attitude was definitely “get it done.”
But regardless of whether that operation was a result of Barr’s direct orders or just his general attitude, he made his support for it afterwards very clear.
[Bill Barr] Here’s what the media is missing. This was not an operation to respond to that particular crowd. It was an operation to move the perimeter one block.
[Interviewer] And the methods they used, you think, were appropriate. Is that what you’re saying?
[Bill Barr] When they met resistance, yes. They announced three times. They didn’t move. By the way, there was no tear gas used.
[Interviewer] There were chemical irritants, the park police has said.
[Bill Barr] No, there were not chemical irritants. Pepper spray is not a chemical irritant. It’s not chemical.
[Interviewer] Pepper spray, you’re saying, is what was used?
[Bill Barr] Pepper balls. Pepper balls.
[John] Okay, he is clearly splitting hairs with the word “chemical” there, but he’s also entirely fucking wrong! Pepper balls are made with a chemical irritant, you can just check the website of the company that supplied them to the federal government, which says that they’re made with a chemical irritant that provides “versatility for any situation.” Because that is what we’re all looking for in our projectile weapons, versatility. A way to transition this civil violation from day to night, and the answer there is, as always, add a statement lip, ditch the blazer, and change those flats to pumps, it’s thirsty Thursday, bitches, time to pep, pep, pep it up.
But he has gone even further than sanctioning “pepper balls,” telling federal prosecutors to consider charging rioters with sedition, a charge that can carry a 20-year prison sentence. And then there was this.
[Q13 News] Attorney General William Barr specifically pointed out Seattle, Portland, and New York City as being designated anarchist jurisdictions and are at risk of losing federal money.
[John] It’s true. The D.O.J identified Seattle, Portland, and New York as anarchist jurisdictions, because they were “permitting violence and destruction of property,” with Barr saying, “the safety of the citizenry hangs in the balance.” And protests against police brutality in black and brown communities, during an economic downturn caused by a mismanaged pandemic that has disproportionately ravaged those same communities is not anarchy, it’s well-targeted, fully justified fury at — to borrow a phrase — a lack of safety for the citizenry. Let’s put it this way, if there is ever real anarchy, it won’t be poor people getting shot.
Now those threats are likely meaningless, since congress, not the president, has the power to determine how federal funds are spent. But that is clearly not the point here. The point is that by Barr even saying that, he is bolstering his and the president’s case that a moral order must be imposed, and by force. And ultimately, that is why he is so very, very dangerous. He gives radically conservative views the veneer of seasoned legal analysis, delivering utter nonsense while hiding behind Whoopi Goldberg glasses.
And as much as he may think that he’s the only objective, fair-minded man left in government, Barr has made it very clear what battle he is really fighting, and who he is fighting it against.
[Bill Barr] The left wants power because that is essentially their state of grace and their — their secular religion. They want to run people’s lives so they can design utopia for all of us. And that’s what, you know, that’s what turns them on.
[John] Oh, come on, Bill. That’s just ridiculous. We all know there’s only one thing that turns on the left, and that is Wallace Shawn. He’s a socialist, as if he needed to get any hotter. Redistribute my assets, you glistening gnome. Nationalize my healthcare, you soft-boiled egg.
Barr isn’t just fighting to give the president power on principle. He wants to give this president power so he will use it against the people Barr thinks are ruining society. Coincidentally, the same people that republican politicians have blamed for exactly that since Barr was beating up hippies and giving coffee to cops. Barr sees a country that needs to be whipped into shape and is doing everything he can to make sure that this president can whip freely. And if Trump is reelected, and Barr is given a chance to keep serving what he views as a one-man executive branch that has the fucking supreme court on its side, then there is only one way to breathlessly describe that.
[Bill Barr] Ahhh!
[John] yeah, no shit. And now this.
[Announcer] And now… Public officials preparing children for a Covid Halloween. [Creepy music]
Hello, kids. It is me, your friend, the count.
The Covid-19 pandemic is reshaping how Oregonians shape holidays. And that includes Halloween. But it didn’t mean Halloween can’t still be spooky and fun this year.
Kids are itching to get their costumes on and rustle up some grade-a scares.
The centers for disease control and prevention and the Virginia department of health warn against the typical door-to-door trick-or-treating.
Avoid spreading Covid-19 by doing activities at home with your family and friends.
For those who are participating, please follow the CDC guidelines and recommendations.
Wear a mask. Watch your distance. Wash your hands. And stay home if you are sick.
If we all don’t do our part, the Covid virus will get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too.
Campania Region, Italy]
[Speaking Italian] “Halloween” is this immense idiocy, this immensely stupid American folklore that we ended up importing here, too. “Halloween” is the embodiment of stupidity.
[John] That’s it. That’s our show. Look, I don’t need to tell you just how important Tuesday is. If you have not voted already, please, please do so. I did. I voted in my first presidential election just this morning. And for what it’s worth, it was inspiring, unexpectedly moving, and I did get this free sticker. So that’s just not nothing. Thank you so much for watching the show. And we will see you next week. And truly hope we’ll all be feeling at least slightly better. And now, to play us out, I give you attorney general Bill Barr and his fucking bagpipes.