"Law and order" is a common refrain for President Donald Trump. But the theme seems to be more about protesters and presidential politics than it is about governing, as evidenced by recent events involving Trump, Attorney General William Barr and Geoffrey S. Berman, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.
The troubling episode transpired over the weekend, beginning with a classic Beltway Friday-night news dump that seemed intended to be lost amid coverage of crises across America, as well as Trump's Saturday rally.
But it blew into a full-blown controversy that's likely to continue if Congress exercises its oversight responsibility and holds Barr accountable for the eventual firing of Berman, a move that "smacks of corruption and incompetence," according to House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.
Barr's late-evening statement announced Berman's resignation, which was met with a contradictory statement from Berman that he had in fact not resigned and had no intention of doing so. He showed up to work on Saturday morning, telling reporters, "I'm just here to do my job."
Barr continued his job — or dirty work, as it appeared to be. Not only was there no apparent reason for Berman's sacking, Barr reportedly offered him other senior government positions. That led to widespread speculation that Berman — a Republican who had donated to Trump's campaign — was fired because he refused to do the president's bidding. By all accounts he had independently led his office in prosecutions and investigations of some Trump allies, reportedly including the president's personal lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani.
Barr, in a bizarre coda to the sordid episode, wrote that Berman had "chosen public spectacle over public service." That phrase, a projection if there ever was one, was in a letter sent to Berman saying that he was fired, attributing the move to Trump. But the president deflected, saying, "That's all up to the attorney general," and, "I'm not involved."
Berman, however, averted an even more protracted process by ultimately resigning. But not before ensuring that his second in command, Deputy U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss, would succeed him.
Strauss comes with an excellent reputation. Just ask Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., one of Trump's top Senate defenders, who said that she is "widely viewed as a highly competent, highly capable deputy U.S. attorney with the knowledge and experience to hit the ground running." The person that both Barr and Trump preferred to hit the ground running, Jay Clayton, chairs the Securities and Exchange Commission and has little prosecutorial experience.
In a welcome return to reason and protocol, and in keeping with his praise of Strauss, Graham is expected to defer to New York's two senators, both Democrats, on the pick. Both had signaled that they would not accept the Wall Street insider.
Because the Senate ends its session in August and would most likely not hold hearings on a permanent replacement before November, Strauss will likely remain acting U.S. attorney until the election.
And on Election Day, episodes like this one, which typify Trump's unseemly approach to jurisprudence, should be a consideration for voters.
Especially as America wrestles with vexing questions of justice, it's important to remember that "law and order" is not just a campaign phrase or political phase, but a fundamental component of just governance and a fair society. In that context, both Barr and Trump have failed the nation.