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Trump Names Neocon Regime Changer as Iran Envoy

With Elliott Abrams at the helm, the president found a way to make his Tehran policy even worse.

The New York Timesreports on the resignation of Brian Hook, who will be replaced by none other than Elliott Abrams:

Mr. Hook will be succeeded by Elliott Abrams, a conservative foreign policy veteran and Iran hard-liner who is currently the State Department’s special representative for Venezuela.

As the administration’s special envoy, Hook had no success in gaining support from other governments for the “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. His brief stint as a negotiator with our European allies yielded nothing, and when he was trying to negotiate with them Trump famously had no idea who he was. He mostly served as one of the administration’s leading propagandists. He was responsible for lies about Yemen, cringe-inducing video messages, promoting the administration’s weird fixation with Cyrus the Great, and embarrassing historical revisionism about the 1953 coup. When he wasn’t trying to bribe ships’ captains to steal Iranian cargo, he was insulting our intelligence with phony claims of wanting to normalize relations with Tehran. Last year he came under fire from the State Department’s Inspector General for his role in the mistreatment of Sahar Nowrouzzadeh, who was the target of political retaliation at the department on account of her support for the JCPOA and at least partly because of her Iranian heritage. Hook is described in the Times‘ report as a “survivor,” but they neglect to mention that the reason he has survived so long in the Trump administration is his cowardice.

Perhaps the most bizarre thing about the coverage of Hook’s resignation is that it is framed as somehow undermining the chances of diplomacy with Iran:

The departure of Mr. Hook, 52, appears to bury any remaining chance of a diplomatic initiative with Iran before the end of Mr. Trump’s term.

Having Abrams come on as a replacement signals that the Trump administration isn’t even pretending to care about a negotiated solution, but during Hook’s time as envoy the administration did everything it could to kill any chance of real diplomacy with Iran. Diplomacy with Iran was already dead and buried once Trump started an economic war against Iran and Pompeo issued his dozen preposterous demands. The mistake in the report on Hook is the same mistake that many other journalists have made in writing about Trump’s Iran policy: it takes empty talk about negotiations at face value and assumes that Iran hawks are operating and arguing in good faith when they typically do just the opposite. Hook’s professed interest in meeting with Iranian officials was always disingenuous in that it required Iran to agree to things that their government was never going to accept. As I said almost two years ago:

The Trump administration’s willingness to “negotiate” with Iran is very much like its readiness to make a “deal” with the Palestinians: the other side is expected to make extensive concessions in exchange for nothing and will be punished severely until they agree to these humiliating terms. It is no wonder that the Iranian government has no interest in “negotiations” that amount to capitulation.

Trump’s Iran policy was destructive and bankrupt with Hook, and his departure can’t undermine a diplomatic effort that was never real. Putting Abrams in charge of the regime change policy for Iran is appalling, but it is hardly surprising at this point. Unfortunately, it appears that Abrams will retain his role as Venezuela envoy. Naming Abrams as the new Iran envoy makes the administration’s goal of regime change that much more obvious and undeniable.

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Podcast: The Neocons Came for Rep. Massie. They Missed

Plus, the new George Floyd video and a foreign policy for Zoomers

In this week’s episode, your hosts speak to Rep. Thomas Massie, the Kentucky Congressman who was recently sandbagged by the chair of his own conference, Liz Cheney. We discuss being libertarian in the age of Trump, and his meat localism bill. In the intro, the new George Floyd video and what it means, plus a foreign policy for Zoomers.

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Listen: Helen Andrews on NYT Podcast about 2020 election

She joined Ross Douthat on the NYT Opinion Section podcast, 'The Argument,' to debate conservative support for President Trump

TAC’s Senior Editor, Helen Andrews, and Editor-at-Large, Dan McCarthy, talked with New York Times‘ columnist, Ross Douthat, about how conservatives should view the upcoming presidential election:

What do Trump supporters talk about when they talk about 2020? This week on “The Argument,” Ross Douthat hosts a special intra-right debate over whether conservatives should support Trump in 2020. He plays “moderate squish” (i.e., NeverTrumper) to Pro-Trump conservatives Dan McCarthy, the editor of Modern Age, and Helen Andrews, a senior editor of The American Conservative. They disagree with Ross about the president’s handling of the coronavirus and argue against his ultimate question for Republicans in 2020: Should conservatives actually hope for a Trump loss in November?

You can read more about the interview and listen here.

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DNC Delegates: Biden Team ‘A Horror Show’ of ‘Disastrous’ Foreign Interventionism

The letter attacks former national security advisor Susan Rice for her 'poor judgment' as well as several other prominent Biden advisors.

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at an an event about affordable healthcare at the Lancaster Recreation Center on June 25, 2020 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joshua Roberts/Getty Images)

Former National Security Advisor Susan Rice is rumored to be near the top of Joe Biden’s short list for vice presidential candidates. A new letter attacking Rice’s “poor judgment” is being widely circulated among delegates to the Democratic National Convention, calling Biden’s inner circle of foreign policy advisors a “horror show” with track records supporting “disastrous” U.S. military interventions. The letter has already received more than 275 signatures from delegates, almost all of whom had been pledged to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

The letter highlights Biden’s long-time chief aide on foreign affairs Antony Blinken as well as several other prominent former members of the Obama Administration who would likely hold cabinet-level appointments in a Biden administration, HuffPost reports. Blinken co-founded a company called WestExec Advisors, that aided a Pentagon effort to enhance drone warfare.

The presumptive Democratic nominee is relying on former Obama aides and Libya war cheerleaders Samantha Power and Jake Sullivan, as well as a bevy of other military-industrial complex beneficiaries, including former Defense Department official Michèle Flournoy, who worked several years for the Boston Consulting Group, while the firm accrued multi-million dollar contracts with the military, and Avril Haines, a former CIA deputy director reviled on the left for her role in making redactions to a report on President George W. Bush’s use of torture and her assistance in President Barack Obama’s extra judicial drone strikes.

“We ask you not to rely on foreign policy advice from those who may have a conflict of interest as a result of their relationships and lobbying on behalf of merchants selling weapons and surveillance technology,” the letter HuffPost obtained reads. “We ask you to appoint top foreign policy advisors whose records reflect good judgment and an understanding of the importance of diplomacy and international cooperation, particularly in the face of global climate catastrophe.”

The organizers of the letter hope to amass more delegates’ signatures before the start of the convention on August 17. They have so far succeeded in gathering approximately a third of the signatures of Sanders’ delegates. A Sanders aide declined to comment to HuffPost.

Biden is known to rely on long-term personal relationships, so the letter is unlikely to dislodge any of these former Obama administration officials from his side. But his team may have to reckon with the more left-wing side of the party that supported Sanders and have been adamantly opposed to U.S. interventions abroad.

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A Horrific Blast in Beirut

Trump has acted irresponsibly, leaping to conclusions and calling it an 'attack.'

04 August 2020, Lebanon, Beirut: A man carries away an injured person following a massive explosion in Beirut's port that rocked the whole city. Photo: Marwan Naamani/dpa (Photo by Marwan Naamani/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Earlier today, there was a horrific explosion in the port of Beirut that ripped through the city and killed more than seventy people as well as injuring at least 4,000:

Lebanon’s health ministry said that at least 78 people had died and 4,000 suffered injuries in the explosions and fire that shook Beirut on Tuesday.

The numbers climbed steadily through the day, and with the wounded still streaming into hospitals and the search for missing people underway, they were likely to go higher still.

The blast appears to have been caused when a fire set off a huge store of ammonium nitrate that had been confiscated from a ship and kept at the port for the last six years. Such a huge quantity of explosive material was a disaster waiting to happen, and the citizens of Beirut have suffered a devastating blow as a result. The Lebanese prime minister has vowed that there will be accountability for those responsible for keeping this material there. Initial reports and video show that the city’s port has been wrecked, and it is not known at this time how long it will take to repair and resume operations there.

Lebanon was already suffering from a severe economic and financial crisis exacerbated by U.S. sanctions on Iran and Syria, and the country was also coping with a serious coronavirus outbreak. Lebanon’s hospitals were already under strain because of the pandemic, and now they are being overwhelmed by the huge number of people injured in the blast. The port explosion affected the entire city and was felt as far away as Cyprus. The damage from the blast was massive and far-reaching:

Many residents lost their homes, especially in the majority Christian eastern part of the city closest to the blast. In the neighborhood of Gemmayze, once a vibrant nightlife district, buildings collapsed, cars were overturned and the streets were blocked by piles of masonry and twisted metal.

The damage was spread across a wide arc. Windows were blown out and check-in counters were damaged at Beirut’s airport, several miles from the explosion. Doors were blown open and windows rattled at the U.S. Embassy, more than 6 miles away.

It is one of the most horrible accidents to befall any city, and both Beirut and Lebanon will need a major international relief effort to help them recover from its effects. The people of Lebanon need our support and aid. In addition to locating and aiding any American citizens caught up in the blast, the U.S. should be offering whatever assistance it can to aid in the delivery of essential goods and other humanitarian supplies. We should offer this help because it is the decent and humane thing to do.

For his part, the president has chosen this moment to make dangerous and irresponsible comments by suggesting that the accidental explosion was an attack:

There is no evidence to support this conclusion at this time, and everything suggests that this was a disastrous accident that happened because of criminal negligence. It helps no one, least of all the people of Lebanon, for anyone in our government to be floating unfounded and inflammatory theories about this explosion. There will be many opportunists and ideologues that will want to exploit this terrible event for their own purposes, and they must not be allowed to use this disaster to promote more conflict and confusion.

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Senate Hearing Farce: Venezuela is a ‘Clear and Present Danger’

Lawmakers squandered the chance to ask how we can be engaged in regime change policy during a crippling pandemic at home.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee members Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) listens to witnesses during a hearing about Venezuela on Capitol Hill August 04, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

It was never more evident that both the Republican and Democratic parties have the same policy on Venezuela then during Tuesday’s Senate hearing on “Venezuela’s Security and Humanitarian Issues.” The Senate Foreign Relations Committee had a rare opportunity to ask important questions of the man responsible for Venezuela policy, special envoy Elliott Abrams, also known as the “neocon zombie” by officials at the State Department. 

Instead, they squandered the chance to question why the U.S. is busy involving themselves in the politics of Venezuela when its under the throes of the coronavirus pandemic at home, and instead asked Abrams how the US could better counter the creeping influence of “malign powers” that trade with Venezuela like Russia, China, and Turkey.

Despite a remarkable story from May that an American — a Bronze Star Green Beret — led a failed armed coup against the Venezuelan government of Nicolas Maduro, not a single Senator asked what the U.S. government knew about the coup beforehand, whether any U.S. funds were involved, and why nothing was done to squash this outlandish and embarrassing attempt at regime change. Senators also failed to ask about the provenance of the Americans that participated in the raid and are, presumably, still rotting in Venezuelan jails.

The lack of questions about what the U.S. knew are even more troubling given that Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.) sent letters requesting this information on May 7.

But Sen. Murphy no longer had curiosity about the answers at Tuesday’s hearing. Instead, his objections to the Trump administration’s policy, as laid out on Twitter and during the hearing, appear to be that we didn’t regime-change hard enough.

“I feel like it’s groundhog day in this committee,” said Murphy. “We’ve been told by the administration, frankly multiple administrations for years, that Russia’s support for Assad and Iran’s support is fragile, it’s just a matter of time before he falls… The truth of the matter is, they were always willing to do more than we were in Syria to protect their interests. And that is likely the exact same case here in Venezuela.

“So our policy has been misguided by fundamentally flawed assumptions from the beginning … but we just have to be clear that our Venezuela policy over the last year and a half has been an unmitigated disaster,” said Murphy. “And if we’re not honest about that, then we can’t self-correct.”

“We have to admit that our big play, recognizing Guaido right out of the gate, and then moving quickly to implement sanctions, just didn’t work.  It didn’t. All it did was harden Russia and Cuba’s play in Venezuela and allow Maduro to paint Guaido as an American patsy,” he said. “We could have used the prospect of US recognition or sanctions as leverage. We could have spent more time trying to get European allies and other partners on the same page. We could have spent more time trying to talk to or neutralize China and Russia early, before we backed them into a corner, a corner from which they’re not moving… but all we did was play all our cards on day one.”

Murphy then recited a list of the mistakes he believes the US made towards Venezuela — incredibly, the failed May coup against Maduro by the former U.S. special operations officer doesn’t even make the list.

Almost universally, Senators endorsed more sanctions and more harsh punishments for companies and countries that trade with Venezuela, even while bemoaning that 5 million Venezuelans have been forced to flee their country on account of starvation and poverty.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) even asked Abrams whether it might be a good idea for the US to blockade fuel coming in from Cuba. Abrams responded by reminding Romney that a military blockade would be an act of war, “and we have chosen not to do that.”

Our inaction is essentially a “freebie for Russia,” said Abrams.

Romney quickly latched on to the phrase: “it is in our interest to assure that it’s not a freebie for Russia,” he concluded with emphasis.

The main takeaway that the Senators seemed most concerned about was that Venezuela will soon have elections which will not be free or fair and that Maduro will likely win them again. Guaido, who the U.S. backed, is not even participating. Almost offhand, Abrams suggested we know that Venezuela won’t have fair elections because “there are today in Venezuela zero voting machines. Zero.”

“They’ve prevented a large number of people from running. They’ve taken over several of the largest political parties, simply replaced the leadership of the parties and given all the parties assets, offices, the party symbols to people the regime chooses,” said Abrams. “So how they’re going to do this I think defies comprehension… this is going to be another fraud.”

Of course, the US held free and fair elections for decades without voting machines — through the use of ballot boxes.

Only Senator Paul asked a question about Abram’s stance on regime change, but he obscured the question with a long riff about socialism and didn’t follow up when Abrams gave what Paul deemed a “non-answer.”

“I don’t think the main problem in Venezuela is that one party or another is a member of the Socialist International, which a lot of partners of ours in Europe are and have been. It’s that it’s a vicious, brutal, murderous dictatorship,” said Abrams.

Paul asked Abrams whether he believed the U.S. government, or the U.S. president, has the right to militarily bring about regime change in Venezuela, without the authority of Congress.

“That’s not our policy,” said Abrams, without commenting on his personal views.

Paul then asked Abrams whether he would still support the Iraq War today.

“Senator, I haven’t thought about the Iraq War in years because I’m in this job, trying to deal with..,” responded Abrams.

“Sounds like another non-answer,” quipped Paul.

No other senators followed up with questions about Abrams’ personal support for regime change. Those views are extremely relevant because Abrams advises the President, and because of Abrams’ history. When he served as Reagan’s assistant secretary of state for human rights, Abrams concealed a massacre of a thousand men, women, and children by U.S.-funded death squads in El Salvador. He was also involved in the Iran Contra scandal, helping to secure covert funding for Contra rebels in Nicaragua in violation of laws passed by Congress. In 1991, he pled guilty to lying to Congress about the America’s role in those two fiascos—twice. After then-president George H.W. Bush pardoned Abrams, he went on to support “measures to scuttle the Latin American peace process launched by the Costa Rican president, Óscar Arias” and use “the agency’s money to unseat the Sandinistas in Nicaragua’s 1990 general elections,” according to Brian D’Haeseleer. And all that happened before he urged President George W. Bush to support regime change in Iraq.

The hearing took an almost farcical turn when Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) recited a long list of internal problems within Venezuela, including drug and human trafficking and illegal mining, and the 5 million Venezuelan refugees that have flooded Colombia and surrounding states.

“If I look at all that, it sounds like Venezuela is a clear and present danger to the United States,” said Menendez.

“To the United States, and to its neighbors,” replied Abrams.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the state of U.S. policy towards Venezuela: they are a “clear and present danger.”

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Ellen Degeneres and Our TV Theaters of the Mind

She was very different behind the scenes than she was on camera. In the age of social media, a lot of us are.

Ellen DeGeneres during the FOX PRESENTS THE IHEART LIVING ROOM CONCERT FOR AMERICA, a music event to provide entertainment relief and support for Americans to help fight the spread of the COVID-19 virus and to celebrate the resilience and strength of the nation during this pandemic.(Photo by FOX via Getty Images)

It’s been hard to choose sides in this whole Ellen Degeneres toxic workplace scandal. On one hand, Degeneres’ executive producers sound like terrible bosses, while Ellen herself comes off as aloof at best and complicit in their nastiness at worst. On the other hand…do I really have to feel sorry for Millennials living in Hollywood who whine to Buzzfeed about “microaggressions”? Or grouse that no one took seriously their complaints over the offensiveness of the term “spirit animal”?

Please don’t make me.

Clearly, in this age of wokeness, the old instinct to always side with labor over management can yield some serious teeth gnashing. Still, it is possible to be too evenhanded about these things, and the more you read into this story, the more it starts to sound one-sided. Ellen staffers were reportedly sexually harassed, including by a top producer. Employees were fired after taking medical leave and attending funerals. Celebrities and producers have alleged that Ellen herself treats her staff, and sometimes her guests, like dirt.

All of which is a contradiction of her brand, which emphasizes niceness, dancing, laughter, charitable giving. It was always saccharine, it might now be hypocritical, but it’s also entirely unsurprising. TV and radio are full of personalities who behave tyrannically behind the scenes, which makes sense if you think about it. A mainstay host like Ellen begins from the premise that people, in spite of the endless other things they could be doing, are going to tune in to her, care about her. That assumption isn’t always rooted in narcissism. I used to work in radio and some of the most generous people I’ve ever met have gabbed behind mikes for a living. But it certainly can be narcissistic. And that narcissism is often then reinforced by the structure of these shows, which gives the host close to absolute control.

Television is a fundamentally myopic medium (most platforms are), a theater of the mind. Ellen didn’t actually need to be nice; she only needed to appear nice in front of the cameras. Likewise does a right-wing radio host not actually need to be that right-wing; he only needs to sound that right-wing to his listeners. These qualities, whatever their virtues, become commodities to be sold to consumers. Consider the former MSNBC producer who emerged this week and accused the network of making almost every coverage decision based on ratings. Consider, too, your grandfather’s eternal lament, that the History Channel now airs crowd-pleasing reality shows instead of actual history. The goal is always more eyeballs and ears. And so long as those eyeballs and ears keep coming, no one cares much what happens behind the scenes.

At least, that’s how the thinking went. If this Ellen fiasco teaches us one thing, it should be that TV shows are no longer just a pact between stars and viewers, exchanging product for Nielsen ratings, with perhaps a few (mostly fawning) entertainment reporters in between. The internet hasn’t leveled the old media fiefdoms, but it has significantly empowered those who labor in their vineyards. A mid-level producer who feels abused by a host doesn’t have to take it anymore. He can tweet about his experiences, his feed just as accessible as that of his powerhouse boss. Or he can run to one of hundreds of media outlets. The web has exposed our theaters of the mind as never before.

Yet perhaps there’s a dark side too. Perhaps in addition to making fiction more real, this democratization has also made reality more fictional, blurring the two together. We’re all little Ellens now, in a way. We all post glamor shots and photos of sunsets on social media, while obscuring our uglier moments. We all create brands for ourselves that we can never hope to live up to.

Whatever the case, there’s still the question of Ellen herself. After these revelations, it’s tempting to say she’s the Amy Klobuchar of daytime television. Klobuchar is the senator from Minnesota who, at least on paper, should have been my favorite Democratic presidential candidate this year. Then came reports that she was hideously abusive to her staff (Klobuchar had also touted her supposed niceness). And shouldn’t that be all we need to know? You can dance with a celebrity, you can bleed with empathy for the middle class, but if you don’t treat your subordinates well, it’s all just an extravagant fraud, a favoring of the distant and abstract over the near and real. That doesn’t mean managers can’t push for excellence. But it’s a fundamental test of character how you treat those under you, whether you lord your power over them or make them feel like collaborators.

Spirit animal-triggered cisgendered microaggressions aside, Ellen appears to have failed that test. So maybe it’s time for her to go. And maybe we should all depart our theaters of the mind for a while and spend some time amid what is firmly real.

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Podcast: The New Populist Right, with Matthew Goodwin

Plus, last week's Google hearing and the AFFH rule

In this week’s episode, the hosts cover last week’s Google hearing, what happened and what is left to be done, and why Trump was right to rescind the AFFH rule entirely. In the interview segment, Matthew Goodwin, professor at the University of Kent and author of National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy joins us to discuss Boris’s continued success and the populist realignment in the U.S.

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Podcast: Empire Has No Clothes, Ep. 12, Max Blumenthal’s Grayzone

He says reporting on the U.S. regime change narrative has left a bullseye on his back, but it's worth every minute.

This week, co-hosts Kelley Vlahos and Daniel Larison talk to Max Blumenthal–investigative reporter, author and founder of The Grayzone. Max talks about why he launched the independent news site, which aims to challenge the sanctioned narratives in U.S. foreign policy in places like Iran, Russia, Venezuela and the Middle East. The team’s reporting flies in the face of propaganda and establishment orthodoxy, particularly on, but not limited to, the Left—like in Syria and China–leaving Max and the Grayzone open to attacks from elite media on both sides of the aisle. “Our slogan is breaking the media blockade. Going to geo-political hotspots where the U.S. is seeking regime change… and showing the other side of the story, which I think would be valuable to whatever your perspective is.”

In the first segment, Kelley and Daniel also talk about the nomination of TAC friend Doug Macgregor as ambassador to Germany, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s declaration of Cold War on China. Don’t miss this one!

 

 

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Bill Barr Understands Church and State

Condemned as an aspiring theocrat by critics, the attorney general actually has just the right ideas about government-Church relations.

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 28: U.S. Attorney General William Barr is sworn in before testifying before the House Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill on July 28, 2020 in Washington, DC. In his first congressional testimony in more than a year, Barr faced questions from the committee about his deployment of federal law enforcement agents to Portland, Oregon, and other cities in response to Black Lives Matter protests; his role in using federal agents to violently clear protesters from Lafayette Square near the White House last month before a photo opportunity for President Donald Trump in front of a church; his intervention in court cases involving Trump's allies Roger Stone and Michael Flynn; and other issues. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr’s Tuesday appearance before the House Judiciary Committee produced more web-worthy soundbites than any other in recent memory—even the joint appearance, the very next day, of four Big Tech CEOs before the subcommittee on antitrust. But one of the most compelling moments of the testimony, clocking in at just under five hours total, has been overlooked in favor of such viral bits as Democrat committee members obsessively “reclaiming their time” whenever the attorney general attempted to answer a question.

Jamie Raskin (D-MD), simultaneously conflating two separate incidents and misconstruing each, asked Barr, “Did I hear you correctly to say that the purpose of unleashing this federal agent assault with tear gas and rubber bullets and pepper spray on 2,000 nonviolent protestors in Lafayette Square was to secure and defend the [sic] St. John’s Episcopal Church?”

Responding to the more famous of the two incidents Raskin seems to have been addressing here—the June 1st clearing of protesters in Lafayette Square, which closely preceded President Trump’s walking across the square to visit St. John’s—Barr made clear that he had said no such thing, and reiterated his earlier testimony that Lafayette Square was cleared as part of a preexisting, precautionary plan to extend the White House security barrier out one street further.

After a brief exchange it became apparent that Raskin was operating from some vague and muddled memory of Barr’s reference (made a mere two hours earlier) to the fire set inside St. John’s by the ubiquitous mostly peaceful protestors, the night prior to the Lafayette Square incident: had the government not taken action, as Barr suggested, the historic church may not be standing today. Already committed to the bit and unwilling to let the facts get in the way, Raskin pressed on: “Okay, are you aware that the rector of the church, that the Episcopal ‘archbishop’ of Washington and the presiding ‘bishop’ of the Episcopal church nationally, along with the Catholic bishop of the Archdiocese of Washington all denounced this police assault on the civil rights and civil liberties of the people?”

The attorney general answered the non-question with a question of his own: “Did they do that before or after the fire was put out?”

Religion had been a recurring theme throughout the hearing—Democratic members of the committee were horrified that Barr had criticized some states’ stay-at-home orders for inordinate harshness against religious gatherings, and took him to task for sending advisory letters to the governors of the states in question. Bill Barr, they feared, was a bit too worried about religion. It’s a criticism that has popped up again and again since Barr returned to the post of attorney general last year, as in the now-infamous New Yorker profile panicking over Barr’s association with such nefarious institutions as the Catholic Information Center, a journal called The Catholic Lawyer, the Knights of Columbus, and the New York Archdiocese’s Inner-City Scholarship Fund. As late as last week, the nominally Catholic NCR was publishing frightened considerations that the attorney general might just be a little too Catholic.

But Barr’s answers in Tuesday’s hearing seemed almost entirely concerned with government and religion leaving each other alone. His church-shutdown concerns, he insisted, were entirely about neutrality, about religious institutions being treated equally to secular ones—and anyone observing in good faith would be hard-pressed to disagree. An executive order that allows daily trips to Walmart but not to Mass does, in fact, raise concerns pertinent to the attorney general of the United States.

Here, though, the attorney general did actually hint at a Church-state relationship: one in which the state “secures and defends”—to use Rep. Raskin’s bizarrely accusatory words—the Church, provides it with the space in which to freely operate, safe from fires and riots and (in a system with checks and balances like ours) even from the government itself. Barr is right that the Church would not be standing today without the actions of the government—not just on May 31st, but over 200 years.

The Church, of course, does not always recognize this service, much to Rep. Raskin’s rhetorical benefit: “All I know is that they denounced what you did,” the congressman charged, “and if you read what the ‘archbishop,’ the Episcopal ‘archbishop’ of Washington wrote, [she] said that using police force to clear non-violent protestors without notice in order to conduct this grotesque photo opportunity was antithetical to the principles of Christianity.”

We’re not meant to seriously believe that Jamie Raskin—a member of the House Pro-Choice Caucus and founder of the House Freethought Caucus who has never been or claimed to be a Christian—has any genuine commitment to “the principles of Christianity.” It’s cheap rhetoric—nothing more, nothing less. But Mariann Budde’s (the Episcopal “archbishop” referenced) attack on government service—supposedly on the basis of Christian principles—is harder to reason out. An explanation may lie in the answer to Mr. Barr’s question: she didn’t even arrive on the scene until long, long after the fire had been put out.

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