As Rudy Giuliani’s point man in the extortion scheme, Lev Parnas dealt with some pretty unsavory characters both in Ukraine and here in the United States. But in coming forward to tell his story, it is not those criminals that Parnas is afraid of. Here’s what he told Rachel Maddow.
Lev Parnas tells Rachel Maddow that Trump is "like a cult leader" and that what makes Trump more powerful now than in '16 and '17 is that "he became that powerful when he got William Barr."
"Am I scared, yes, and because I think I’m more scared of our own Justice Department…" pic.twitter.com/mZg5Z93Oza
— Justin Baragona (@justinbaragona) January 17, 2020
Parnas made it clear that it is the U.S. Department of Justice that scares him. We can dismiss that as an explosive statement from a grifter facing prosecution, but it helps answer the question of why Parnas decided to publicly tell his story. Making that kind of claim against the people who are prosecuting your case wouldn’t make much sense otherwise.
In talking about why more Republicans haven’t broken with Trump, Parnas said something even more explosive. He suggested that Trump “wasn’t so powerful in ’16 and ’17. He became that powerful when he got William Barr. People are scared.”
Why would people be scared of William Barr? Perhaps it is because the attorney general is making it clear that he is willing to use the power of the Department of Justice to investigate Trump’s enemies. In noting that Barr has recently opened a new investigation into former FBI Director James Comey, Jonathan Chait identified the pattern.
The pattern of selective prosecution under Trump’s Department of Justice, and his fanatically partisan Attorney General William Barr, has become evident in a series of cases that all resemble this one. The connecting thread is that Trump’s enemies are scoured for any violation that can be found, and held to the strictest letter of the law, while his allies are given broad latitude.
In addition to Comey, Barr has now gone after former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, former Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and former CIA Director John Brennan. Meanwhile, Barr attempted to cover up the whistleblower complaint that eventually led to Trump’s impeachment, failed to investigate whether Marie Yavanovitch was being surveilled, and we still haven’t seen an investigation into reported anti-Clinton bias at the FBI that led Comey to announce an investigation into the former secretary of state in the days before the 2016 election. As Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, the attorney general has gone “rouge” and will not announce a special prosecutor to investigate the Parnas accusations because he is implicated.
All of that is a reminder about how Barr stumbled out of answering a very direct question from Senator Kamala Harris.
Ever since Lev Parnes’s allegation last night that AG Barr was "on the team," I can’t stop thinking about this exchange with Sen. Kamala Harris during his confirmation:pic.twitter.com/DBFR1ZEMTs
— Marlon Weems but Scarier 👻 (@GeekTrader) January 16, 2020
In identifying the pattern of Barr’s selective prosecution, Chait refers to an article written by Benjamin Wittes back in May 2016, when it was becoming clear that Trump would be the Republican nominee. Wittes was responding to the suggestion that it was presidential surveillance and war powers that should cause the most alarm about putting a would-be tyrant in the Oval Office.
Let me be blunt: The soft spot is not NSA and it’s not the drone program. The soft spot, the least tyrant-proof part of the government, is the U.S. Department of Justice and the larger law enforcement and regulatory apparatus of the United States government. The first reason you should fear a Donald Trump presidency is what he would do to the ordinary enforcement functions of the federal government, not the most extraordinary ones.
Wittes goes on to explain that, in our justice system, prosecutors have been given the discretion to decide which cases to investigate and prosecute. He then quotes Justice Robert Jackson, who served as attorney general under Franklin Roosevelt before becoming a Supreme Court Justice.
If the prosecutor is obliged to choose his case, it follows that he can choose his defendants. Therein is the most dangerous power of the prosecutor: that he will pick people that he thinks he should get, rather than cases that need to be prosecuted. With the law books filled with a great assortment of crimes, a prosecutor stands a fair chance of finding at least a technical violation of some act on the part of almost anyone. In such a case, it is not a question of discovering the commission of a crime and then looking for the man who has committed it, it is a question of picking the man and then searching the law books, or putting investigators to work, to pin some offense on him. It is in this realm—in which the prosecutor picks some person whom he dislikes or desires to embarrass, or selects some group of unpopular persons and then looks for an offense, that the greatest danger of abuse of prosecuting power lies. It is here that law enforcement becomes personal, and the real crime becomes that of being unpopular with the predominant or governing group, being attached to the wrong political views, or being personally obnoxious to or in the way of the prosecutor himself.
In order to obtain that kind of power, Trump understood that both Jeff Sessions and James Comey had to go. Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation, leading to the appointment of a special prosecutor, and Comey refused to pledge loyalty to the president. Having gotten rid of them, Trump was then able to install his own Roy Cohn as attorney general.
With the power to ignore the president’s crimes and investigate his enemies, William Barr has put the Department of Justice at the disposal of the criminal cabal that has infected the federal government. If Parnas is correct, Barr’s efforts have effectively silenced opposition to the president within the Republican Party. That is precisely why the attorney general is the most dangerous member of Trump’s cabinet.