Don’t Let Bill Barr and Ivanka Trump Visit the Reputation Laundromat

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HR King
May 29, 2001
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By Frank Bruni
Contributing Opinion Writer

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The Jan. 6 committee’s televised hearings are many things: the coalescence of scattered revelations into a clearer, cleaner narrative; an unblinking appraisal of the madness of King Donald; an opportunity for Americans to reflect on how close things came, and might yet come, to falling apart.
But for Bill Barr, Bill Stepien, Ivanka Trump and others, they are also something else — something we should not be taken in by.
They are a trip to the reputation laundromat (or perhaps, for this crowd, the reputation dry cleaner). Donald Trump’s onetime acolytes are trying to expunge the stain of their sycophancy. And they’re betting that in a country and era of fickle attention spans and feeble memories, they’ll have more luck with that spot than Lady Macbeth did with hers.
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Early this week, the committee showed testimony by Barr, the former attorney general, that he told Trump again and again that Joe Biden had won the 2020 election fairly and definitively. It showed testimony by Stepien, who was Trump’s 2020 campaign manager, that he was among a group of aides — “Team Normal,” he called them — who pushed back against Rudy Giuliani’s hallucinatory insistence that the election was being stolen.

And last week, of course, was Ivanka Trump’s star turn. That’s when we saw her testimony: that she said a big no to the Big Lie.
But her, Barr’s and Stepien’s words don’t amount to moral reckonings. They reflect professional calculations.
Team Normal? If you were still working for Trump by the fourth year of his presidency, there was nothing normal about you. If you served that campaign, during which Trump repeatedly telegraphed his intention to declare any result other than victory an illegitimate one, there was nothing normal about you. If you’d taken the measure of the man before Election Day 2020 and decided, yes, he’s fit to lead America, good for this country and worthy of my efforts and energies on his behalf, there was nothing normal about you.
And if, in the weeks after Election Day, you finally stopped abetting his delusions, midwifing his megalomania and whispering sweet reassurances in his ear, you weren’t returning to normal. You were simply cutting your losses. It was time to hitch your wagon to a sturdier, steadier horse, to find another patron and another payday.



Stepien, as my colleague Michelle Cottle wrote in The Times on Tuesday, “slunk away, coat collar flipped up and hat brim pulled low in the hopes that no one would notice him fleeing the spiraling freak show to which he had sold his services and his soul.”

Susan Glasser, in The New Yorker, also had it right. Reflecting on how Stepien and Barr are now styling themselves (and being showcased) as blunt tellers of Trump-foiling truths, Glasser wrote on Monday evening that they are “not only Trump’s accusers but also first-class enablers of Trump and his lies — until Trump finally found a lie too big for them to enable. Even when it came to their qualms about Trump’s ‘rigged election’ crusade, their outrage came conveniently after the fact, not when it might have made a difference.”
Amen. We can be grateful that Barr and Stepien didn’t travel the final autocratic mile with Trump and not discount their disgraceful road to that point. We can remember how Barr, in advance of Robert Mueller’s report, released a toned-down summary of it that was clearly meant to dull its impact.
We can remember that before Mike Pence patriotically refused Trump’s order not to certify the election results, he pathetically performed the role of Trump’s evangelical beard. And don’t get me started on Ivanka. I’ve spent ample time in her temple of self-celebration, as have others. She and her husband, Jared Kushner, will always do what’s profitable for them, and if that occasionally intersects with the public interest, well, accidents happen. We can think a word of thanks without uttering a syllable of praise.
There were Republicans who took a chance on Trump at the start and got out fast, accepting that either he’d fooled them or they’d kidded themselves. There were Republicans who signaled that much was amiss. Those who didn’t — including Pence, Mike Pompeo and others with presidential aspirations in 2024 — forfeited the moral high ground and can’t credibly reclaim it now.
Nor can they pretend that they were anything other than transaction-minded actors in the most transactional administration I’ve observed. When they benefited from their proximity to Trump, they held their noses, bit their tongues and cuddled close. It’s possible they persuaded themselves that his flaws weren’t so different from any other vain leader’s, that politics is invariably messy and that their compromises were “normal” ones. That’s awfully convenient. And utterly absurd.

 

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