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'The truth hurt': Civil rights attorney explains why the empire is not done with Julian Assange

Shortly after WikiLeaks released the Iraq War Logs in October 2010, which documented numerous US war crimes — including video images of the gunning down of two Reuters journalists and 10 other unarmed civilians in the Collateral Murder video, the routine torture of Iraqi prisoners, the covering up of thousands of civilian deaths and the killing of nearly 700 civilians that had approached too closely to US checkpoints — the towering civil rights attorneys Michael Ratner and Len Weinglass, who had defended Daniel Ellsberg in the Pentagon Papers case, met Julian Assange in a studio apartment in Central London, according to Ratner's newly released memoir "Moving the Bar".

This article originally appeared on Scheerpost.

Assange had just returned to London from Sweden where he had attempted to create the legal framework to protect WikiLeaks' servers in Sweden. Shortly after his arrival in Stockholm, his personal bank cards were blocked. He had no access to funds and was dependent on supporters. Two of these supporters were women with whom he had consensual sex. As he was preparing to leave, the Swedish media announced that he was wanted for questioning about allegations of rape. The women, who never accused Assange of rape, wanted him to take an STD test. They had approached the police about compelling him to comply. "I did not want to put any charges on Julian Assange," texted one of them on August 20 while she was still at the police station, but "the police were keen on getting their hands on him." She said she felt "railroaded by the police." Within 24 hours the chief prosecutor of Stockholm took over the preliminary investigation. He dropped the rape accusation, stating "I don't believe there is any reason to suspect that he has committed rape." Assange, although not charged with a crime, cancelled his departure and remained in Sweden for another five weeks to cooperate with the investigation. A special prosecutor, Marianne Ny, was appointed to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct. Assange was granted permission to leave the country. He flew to Berlin. When Assange arrived in Berlin three encrypted laptops with documents detailing US war crimes had disappeared from his luggage.

"We consider the Swedish allegations a distraction," Ratner told Assange, according to his memoir. "We've read the police reports, and we believe the authorities don't have a case. We're here because in our view you are in much more jeopardy in the US Len [Weinglass] can explain why."

Assange, Ratner recalled, remained silent.

"WikiLeaks and you personally are facing a battle that is both legal and political," Weinglass told Assange. "As we learned in the Pentagon Papers case, the US government doesn't like the truth coming out. And it doesn't like to be humiliated. No matter if it's Nixon or Bush or Obama, Republican or Democrat in the White House. The US government will try to stop you from publishing its ugly secrets. And if they have to destroy you and the First Amendment and the rights of publishers with you, they are willing to do it. We believe they are going to come after WikiLeaks and you, Julian, as the publisher."

"Come after me for what?" asked Julian.

"Espionage," Weinglass continued, according to the memoir. "They're going to charge Bradley Manning with treason under the Espionage Act of 1917. We don't think it applies to him because he's a whistleblower, not a spy. And we don't think it applies to you either because you are a publisher. But they are going to try to force Manning into implicating you as his collaborator. That's why it's crucial that WikiLeaks and you personally have an American criminal lawyer to represent you."

Ratner and Weinglass laid out potential scenarios.

"The way it could happen," Ratner said, "is that the Justice Department could convene a secret grand jury to investigate possible charges against you. It would probably be in northern Virginia, where everyone on the jury would be a current or retired CIA employee or have worked for some other part of the military-industrial complex. They would be hostile to anyone like you who'd published US government secrets. The grand jury could come up with a sealed indictment, issue a warrant for your arrest, and request extradition."

"What happens if they extradite me?" asked Julian.

"They fly you to where the indictment is issued," Weinglass told Assange. "Then they put you into some hellhole in solitary, and you get treated like Bradley Manning. They put you under what they call special administrative measures, which means you probably would not be allowed communication with anyone. Maybe your lawyer could go in and talk to you, but the lawyer couldn't say anything to the press."

"And it's very, very unlikely that they would give you bail," Ratner added.

"Is it easier to extradite from the UK or from Sweden?" asked Sarah Harrison, who was at the meeting.

"We don't know the answer to that," Ratner replied. "My guess is that you would probably have the most support and the best legal team in a bigger country like the UK In a smaller country like Sweden, the US can use its power to pressure the government, so it would be easier to extradite you from there. But we need to consult with a lawyer who specializes in extradition."

Assange's British lawyer, also at the meeting, proposed that Assange return to Sweden for further questioning.

"I don't think that's wise," Weinglass said, "unless the Swedish government guarantees that Julian will not be extradited to another country because of his publishing work."

"The problem is that Sweden doesn't have bail," Ratner explained. "If they put you in jail in Stockholm and the US pressures the government to extradite you, Sweden might send you immediately to the US and you'd never see the light of day again. It's far less risky to ask the Swedish prosecutor to question you in London."

The US government's determination to extradite Assange and imprison him for life, despite the fact that Assange is not a US citizen and WikiLeaks is not a US based publication, Ratner understood from the start, will be unwavering and relentless.

In the 132-page ruling (pdf) issued today in London by Judge Vanessa Baraitser of the Westminster Magistrates' Court the court refused to grant an extradition request only because of the barbarity of the conditions under which Assange would be held while imprisoned in the US.

"Faced with the conditions of near total isolation without the protective factors which limited his risk at [Her Majesty's Prison] Belmarsh, I am satisfied the procedures described by the US will not prevent Mr. Assange from finding a way to commit suicide," said Baraitser, "and for this reason I have decided extradition would be oppressive by reason of mental harm and I order his discharge."

Assange is charged with violating 17 counts of the Espionage Act, along with an attempt to hack into a government computer. Each of the 17 counts carries a potential sentence of 10 years. The additional charge that Assange conspired to hack into a government computer has a maximum sentence of five years. The judge ominously accepted all of the charges leveled by US prosecutors against Assange — that he violated the Espionage Act by releasing classified information and was complicit in assisting his source, Chelsea Manning, in the hacking of a government computer. It is a very, very dangerous ruling for the media. And if, on appeal, and the US has already said it would appeal, the higher court is assured that Assange will be held in humane conditions, it paves the way for his extradition.

The publication of classified documents is not yet a crime in the United States. If Assange is extradited and convicted, it will become one. The extradition of Assange would mean the end of journalistic investigations into the inner workings of power. It would cement into place a terrifying global, corporate tyranny under which borders, nationality and law mean nothing. Once such a legal precedent is set, any publication that publishes classified material, from The New York Times to an alternative website, will be prosecuted and silenced.

Assange has done more than any contemporary journalist or publisher to expose the inner workings of empire and the lies and crimes of the US ruling elite. The deep animus towards Assange, as fierce within the Democratic Party as the Republican Party, and the cowardice of the media and watchdog groups such as PEN to defend him, mean that all he has left are courageous attorneys, such as Ratner, activists, who protested outside the court, and those few voices of conscience willing to become pariahs in his defense.

Ratner's memoir, which is a profile in courage of the many dissidents, including Assange, he valiantly defended, is also a profile of courage of one of the greatest civil rights attorneys of our era. There are few people I respect more than Michael Ratner, who I accompanied to visit Assange when he was trapped in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. His memoir is not only about his lifelong fight against racial injustice, a rising corporate totalitarianism, and the crimes of empire, but is a sterling example of what it means to live the moral life.

Assange earned the eternal enmity of the Democratic Party establishment by publishing 70,000 hacked emails belonging to the Democratic National Committee and senior Democratic officials. The emails were copied from the accounts of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman. The Podesta emails exposed the donation of millions of dollars to the Clinton Foundation by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and identified both nations as major funders of Islamic State [ISIL/ISIS]. They exposed the $657,000 that Goldman Sachs paid to Hillary Clinton to give talks, a sum so large it can only be considered a bribe. They exposed Clinton's repeated mendacity. She was caught in the emails, for example, telling the financial elites that she wanted "open trade and open borders" and believed Wall Street executives were best positioned to manage the economy, a statement that contradicted her campaign statements. They exposed the Clinton campaign's efforts to influence the Republican primaries to ensure that Donald Trump was the Republican nominee. They exposed Clinton's advance knowledge of questions in a primary debate. They exposed Clinton as the principal architect of the war in Libya, a war she believed would burnish her credentials as a presidential candidate.

The Democratic Party, which routinely blames Russia for its election loss to Trump, charges that the Podesta emails were obtained by Russian government hackers. Hillary Clinton has called WikiLeaks a Russian front. James Comey, the former FBI director, however, conceded that the emails were probably delivered to WikiLeaks by an intermediary, and Assange has said the emails were not provided by "state actors."

Journalists can argue that this information, like the war logs, should have remained hidden, but they can't then call themselves journalists.

A few weeks after Ratner's first meeting with Assange, WikiLeaks published 220 documents from Cablegate, the US State Department classified cables that Chelsea Manning had provided to WikiLeaks. The cables had been sent to the State Department from US diplomatic missions, consulates, and embassies around the globe. The 251,287 cables dated from December 1966 to February 2010. The release dominated the news and filled the pages of The New York Times, the Guardian, Der Spiegel, Le Monde and El País.

"The extent and importance of the Cablegate revelations took my breath away," Ratner, who died in 2016, wrote in his memoir. "They pulled back the curtain and revealed how American foreign policy functions behind-the-scenes, manipulating events all over the globe. They also provided access to US diplomats' raw, frank, and often embarrassing assessments of foreign leaders. Some of the most stunning revelations:

  • In 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ordered US diplomats to spy on UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and other UN representatives from China, France, Russia, and the UK. The information she asked for included DNA, iris scans, fingerprints, and personal passwords. US and British diplomats also eavesdropped on UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in the weeks before the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
  • The US has been secretly launching missile, bomb, and drone attacks on terrorist targets in Yemen, killing civilians. But to protect the US, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh told Gen. David Petraeus, "We'll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours."
  • Saudi King Abdullah repeatedly urged the US to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities to "cut off the head of the snake." Other leaders from Israel, Jordan, and Bahrain also urged the US to attack Iran.
  • The White House and Secretary of State Clinton refused to condemn the June 2009 military coup in Honduras that overthrew elected President Manuel Zelaya, ignoring a cable from the US embassy there that described the coup as "illegal and unconstitutional." Instead of calling for the restoration of Zelaya, the US supported elections orchestrated by the coup's leader, Roberto Micheletti. Opposition leaders and international observers boycotted those elections.
  • Employees of a US government contractor in Afghanistan, DynCorp, hired "dancing boys" — a euphemism for child prostitutes — to be used as sex slaves.
  • In various cables, Afghan President Hamid Karzai is called "an extremely weak man who did not listen to facts but was instead easily swayed by anyone who came to report even the most bizarre stories or plots against him." Argentine President Cristina Kirchner and her husband Néstor Kirchner, the former president, are described as "paranoid." President Nicolas Sarkozy of France is described as "thin-skinned" and "authoritarian." Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is called "feckless, vain, and ineffective."
  • Perhaps most important, the cables said that Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had "lost touch with the Tunisian people" and described "high-level corruption, a sclerotic regime, and deep hatred of . . . Ben Ali's wife and her family." These revelations led to the eventual overthrow of the regime in Tunisia. The Tunisian protests spread like wildfire to other countries of the Middle East, resulting in the widespread revolts of the Arab Spring of 2011.

Secretary of State Clinton said after the release of the cables, "Disclosures like these tear at the fabric of the proper functioning of responsible government." Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department was conducting "an active, ongoing criminal investigation into WikiLeaks." Then US Rep. Candice Miller (R-MI) called WikiLeaks "a terrorist organization." Former GOP Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich called for WikiLeaks to be shut down and Assange treated as "an enemy combatant who's engaged in information warfare against the United States."

"For those who ran the American empire, the truth hurt," Ratner writes. "For the rest of us, it was liberating. With the 2010 release of the Collateral Murder video, the Afghan War Logs, the Iraq War Logs, and Cablegate, WikiLeaks went far beyond traditional investigative reporting. It proved that in the new digital world, full transparency was not only possible, but necessary in order to hold governments accountable for their actions."

"On November 30, 2010, two days after the initial release of Cablegate, Sweden issued an Interpol 'Red Alert Notice' normally used to warn about terrorists," Ratner goes on. "It also issued a European Arrest Warrant seeking Assange's extradition to Sweden. Since he was wanted only for questioning about the sexual misconduct allegations, it seemed clear from the timing and severity of the warrant that the US had successfully pressured the Swedes."

The efforts to extradite Assange intensified. He was held for ten days in solitary confinement at Wandsworth Prison before being released on bail of 340,000 pounds. He spent 551 days under house arrest, forced to wear an electronic anklet and check in with police twice a day. Visa, Mastercard, Bank of America, and Western Union refused to process donations to WikiLeaks.

"It became virtually impossible for anyone to donate to WikiLeaks, and its income immediately plummeted by 95 percent," Ratner writes. "But none of the financial institutions could point to any illegal activity by WikiLeaks, and none had imposed any restrictions on WikiLeaks' mainstream co-publishers. The financial blockade applied only to WikiLeaks."

Ratner was soon spending several days a month in England conferring with Assange and his legal team. Ratner also attended the trial at Fort Meade in Maryland for Chelsea Manning (then Bradley Manning), certain that it would illuminate how the US government intended to go after Assange.

"Prosecutors in the Bradley Manning case revealed internet chat logs between Manning and an unnamed person at WikiLeaks who they said colluded with Manning by helping the accused traitor engineer a reverse password," he writes. "Without supporting evidence, prosecutors claimed the unnamed person was Assange. Both Manning and Assange denied it. Nonetheless, it was clear that what Len [Weinglass] and I had predicted was happening. The case against Bradley Manning was also a case against WikiLeaks and Julian Assange. The two were inextricably linked."

Manning was charged with 22 violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the Espionage Act, including aiding the enemy — which carries a possible death sentence — wrongfully causing intelligence to be published on the internet, and theft of public property.

"I couldn't get over the irony of it all," Ratner writes. "On trial was the whistle-blower who leaked documents showing the number of civilians killed in Iraq, the Collateral Murder video, Reuters journalists being killed, children being shot. To me, the people who should be the defendants were the ones who started the Afghan and Iraq wars, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, the officials who carried out torture, the people who committed the very crimes that Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks exposed. And those who should be observing were the ghosts of the dead Reuters journalists and the ghosts of the children and others killed in Iraq and Afghanistan."

"A week after Manning's arraignment, WikiLeaks published an internal e-mail dated January 26, 2011 from the private intelligence firm Strategic Forecasting (Stratfor)," Ratner goes on. "Part of a trove of five million e-mails that the hacker group Anonymous obtained from Stratfor's servers, it was written by Stratfor Vice President Fred Burton, a former State Department counter-terrorism expert. It stated clearly: 'We have a sealed indictment on Assange. Pls protect.' Another of Burton's e-mails was more vivid: 'Assange is going to make a nice bride in prison. Screw the terrorist. He'll be eating cat food forever.'"

"The e-mails revealed how far the US government would go to protect its dirty secrets, and how it would use its own secrecy as a weapon," Ratner writes. "Somehow Stratfor, which has been called a shadow CIA, had information about this sealed indictment that neither WikiLeaks, Assange, nor his lawyers had."

Jeremy Hammond was sentenced to the maximum ten years in federal prison for the Stratfor hack and leak. He remains imprisoned.

On June 14, 2012, the UK Supreme Court issued its verdict affirming the extradition order to Sweden. Assange, cornered, was granted political asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London where he would remain for seven years until British police in April 2019 raided the embassy, sovereign territory of Ecuador, and placed him in solitary confinement in the notorious high-security HM Prison Belmarsh.

The arrest eviscerates all pretense of the rule of law and the rights of a free press. The illegalities, embraced by the Ecuadorian, British and US governments, in the seizure of Assange were ominous. They presaged a world where the internal workings, abuses, corruption, lies and crimes — especially war crimes — carried out by corporate states and the global ruling elite will be masked from the public. They presaged a world where those with the courage and integrity to expose the misuse of power will be hunted down, tortured, subjected to sham trials and given lifetime prison terms in solitary confinement. They presaged an Orwellian dystopia where news is replaced with propaganda, trivia and entertainment.

Under what law did Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno capriciously terminate Julian Assange's rights of asylum as a political refugee? Under what law did Moreno authorize British police to enter the Ecuadorian Embassy — diplomatically sanctioned sovereign territory — to arrest a naturalized citizen of Ecuador? Under what law did Prime Minister Theresa May order the British police to grab Assange, who has never committed a crime? Under what law did President Donald Trump demand the extradition of Assange, who is not a US citizen and whose news organization is not based in the United States?

"As a journalist and publisher of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange had every right to asylum," Ratner writes. "The law is clear. The exercise of political free speech — including revealing government crimes, misconduct, or corruption — is internationally protected and is grounds for asylum. The US government has recognized this right, having granted asylum to several journalists and whistleblowers, most notably from China."

"My view is that mass surveillance is not really about preventing terrorism, but is much more about social control," Ratner writes. "It's about stopping an uprising like the ones we had here in the US in the '60s and '70s. It shocks me that Americans are passively allowing this and that all three branches of government have done nothing about it. Despite mass surveillance, my message for people is the same one that Mother Jones delivered a century ago: organize, organize, organize. Yes, the surveillance state will try to scare you. They will be watching and listening. You won't even know whether your best friend is an informant. Take whatever security precautions you can. But do not be intimidated. Whether you call it the sweep of history or the sweep of revolution, in the end, the surveillance state cannot stop people from moving toward the kind of change that will make their lives better."

Pink Floyd's Roger Waters: Standing up for free expression means standing up for Julian Assange

As the world remains fixated on the COVID pandemic and a divisive presidential election in the United States, it's crucial that we all remain mindful about the fact that freedom of expression is under attack.

What happened to the fourth estate? Where is the honest reporting that we all so desperately need, and upon which the very survival of democracy depends?

I'll tell you where it is: It's languishing in Her Majesty's Prison Belmarsh.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has spent the last year and a half in that London prison under terrible conditions. The U.S. wants to extradite him to face unprecedented charges under the 1917 Espionage Act, which could lead to a sentence of up to 175 years. Given that the federal court in Washington, D.C., has a 100% record of guilty verdicts in espionage cases, Assange would likely spend the rest of his life in solitary confinement. In effect, it would be a lingering sentence of death. And what grave crime might fit such a punishment? The crime of publishing the truth.

Ten years ago, Assange worked with whistleblower Chelsea Manning to reveal U.S. misconduct and share it with the world. In short, he did what any respectable journalist should do: He shone a light on secrets that the U.S. government would rather keep hidden but which the public had an absolute right — and an absolute need — to know.

Because of Manning, Assange and WikiLeaks, we learned of unreported civilian casualties, war crimes, human rights violations, the killing of journalists and the U.S. military's efforts to cover up its misdeeds through misinformation. These revelations won numerous awards for helping to change the global conversation on the post-9/11 wars.

But while human rights organizations and journalism societies have heralded Manning and Assange for the work they did in the public interest, the U.S. government has sought to make examples of them. To hang them like dead magpies in the hedge as a dire warning to others.

If the U.S. extradites Assange, it will set the dangerous precedent that journalists can be prosecuted merely for working with inside sources, or for publishing information the government deems harmful. As many experts have testified, this would be the death knell of investigative journalism. It would become nearly impossible for a free press to fulfill its obligation to inform the citizenry, challenge government secrecy, expose concealed wrongdoing or share any information that might embarrass those in power.

Citizens throughout the world should consider the important role that knowledge plays in democratic life. Knowledge makes us who we are, enables us to understand our fellow citizens and encourages us to grow. Without access to information, our power to express our will at the ballot box is weakened. And our access to information depends on the right to free expression.

The U.S. military and its partners have been at war for nearly two decades. These wars have cost millions of lives and displaced at least 37 million people. We know that our governments, through bias, incompetence or manipulation, have played fast and loose with the truth about these wars. An independent press is the only safeguard we have against government deception. We should always celebrate brave whistleblowers and journalists committed to sharing with us the information we need to be responsible citizens. The information that Manning leaked and Assange published was true, released in the public interest, and never harmed anyone — unless damaging the reputations of public officials constitutes harm.

Right now, with the connivance of Facebook, Google and Twitter, the U.S. government is attempting to dramatically reshape how we share information. It appears that the U.K. government is willing to help its closest ally and turn over Assange.

So what to do now? I am sometimes accused of preaching to the choir. So be it. Choir — we are a very large choir, and in the name of truth and love and freedom we must raise our voices in unison, in a mighty choral roar to demand of the U.S. and U.K. governments that they end their war on journalism. That they dismiss the charges against Julian Assange and cancel the extradition proceedings in the kangaroo court in London. Certainly the future of democracy, and possibly the very future of life on earth, depends upon it.

Here's why 'every American' can relate to cults

"If you ask me where I'm from, I'll lie to you," Lauren Hough writes in the first line of her debut essay collection. "I'll tell you my parents were missionaries. I'll tell you I'm from Boston. I'll tell you I'm from Texas. Those lies, people believe." The truth is she was raised all over the world in the infamous Children of God cult, a detail she kept secret for years until, with the help of the internet, she was able to connect with others like her. It turns out, as "Leaving Isn't the Hardest Thing" (Vintage Books, out now) reveals in prose that crackles with dark wit, sharp observations and stunning revelations, surviving a childhood shaped by an abusive cult with her ambition intact may have uniquely positioned Hough to see not only authoritarian religions, but America itself — its military, its criminal justice system, its bigotries, the precarious edge upon which it positions its working class — through the clearest of eyes.

Hough's book has been hotly anticipated since her HuffPost essay, "I Was A Cable Guy. I Saw The Worst Of America," went viral in 2018. In that essay and 10 others, Hough writes about navigating her way through a multitude of identities, regions, and subcultures, daring to tell the truth about America from the inside and out.

I spoke with Hough by phone last week, shortly after the delightful news broke that Cate Blanchett would be joining her in narrating the audiobook. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

One thing that I was really struck by in this book is how deeply it grapples with loneliness, particularly a specific kind of loneliness that occurs when a person is surrounded by others — first in living in group homes with the Children of God, and then with your family, and then with roommates in tiny spaces. It reaches an apex in the scenes when you're incarcerated in solitary confinement. America is supposedly this obscenely chatty, gregarious country and people, but studies also show that we're also a really lonely country. What do you think creates this paradox?

It's funny you said "chatty," because I figured out a long time ago if I talk a lot, I don't have to say anything. When you meet people, if you seem earnest — well, not earnest, I avoided that — but if you seem like an open book, and you have plenty of stories to tell, and you drop in, "Yeah, my parents were missionaries, f**king hippies, don't know what to tell you," and change the subject, people don't ask any questions. They think they know everything there is to know about you. I think we just don't connect. Nobody who's ever asked, "How are you?" in America has actually meant the question or wanted an answer. And I think that's becoming really apparent with the pandemic, because now people ask, "How are you?" and you get a world full of tragedy.

People will tell you their answer now. But are we ready to hear it?

We're not. We're just unloading on random strangers. How are you? Well, my dog died last week. Everybody has this tragic thing, and I don't think we're capable of pretending anymore and answering, "Fine, how are you?" and moving on from the conversation. We're all experiencing that loneliness right now. We're just, deeply, deeply, deeply desperate to connect.

That brings up the question of whether we're being reshaped as a people by the pandemic. Everyone is going through this big trauma but isolated from each other. As Americans, we still want to buy into this myth that this is a country where you can always start over — fresh start, clean slate, you can be whoever you want to be. Do you think that we will be able to move on for real from this? Will we just clean slate, memory-hole this last year?

I hope not. Everyone's talking about going back to normal, and normal wasn't that f**king good for a lot of us. Normal was awful. I hope we don't go back to normal. I hope we experience something together and remember it, but we're really good — as a country, as a culture — of just shoving s**t down and not thinking about it.

The term "essential worker" has become such an irony-laden term over the last year, as we apply it to the folks who stock the shelves and run the checkouts at the supermarket, or work in the warehouses that service our two-day shipping, despite the the humiliating and debilitating demands that are placed on them. And that ties in closely to one of your running threads in the book about how class and labor and gender intersect, how the American workplace's principle of your time is not your own when you're on the clock then manifests itself as therefore your body is not your own. What do you think that the mainstream media misses about America's working class, when they have such a narrow slice of it they want to focus on — namely white, conservative, straight cisgender men without college degrees?

I think the biggest problem there is the working class isn't sitting in a diner hanging out all morning [talking to journalists]. The working class is sh**ting in a Big Gulp cup in the back of their work van, because there aren't any bathrooms around. It's been infuriating to watch. People will gladly cheer for essential workers, but won't pay them.

Just f**king pay people. Nobody needs to be cheered. It's like being a veteran, being thanked for your service while they cut VA benefits. Support our troops — but not if you need anything!

America hates talking about class, right?

Yeah, we really do.

Which means hating talking about a lot of things that intersect with that, too.

We just don't like to be inconvenienced. We'll gladly support essential workers as long as it doesn't mean anything about our lives has to change at all. It's funny talking about it right now, because I just tried to commit career suicide the other night, and it backfired on me — apparently I suck at that. I picked a fight with Amazon, and told people to cancel their [book] orders. I really thought I'd get in trouble. And apparently, it's not a bad idea to make bookstores love you.

Most people have heard my name because I wrote an essay about needing to pee. When I was trying to figure out how to write it, I was talking to a couple guys I knew and I asked them for stories. Do you guys remember anything that happened? Because I don't remember 10 years. I said to my friend Andre that really, I just remember needing to pee. He was like, well, there's the essay.

I don't know that a lot of people who work in offices understand. It depends on the office, I mean, if you're working in call center, I'm talking about you. But yeah, I don't think people understand how you have to ask for a day off and beg and have a really good excuse or you just don't get one.

And we're seeing now, with sick leave, how do you stop a pandemic when people have to work sick?

And working through sickness or injury has lasting effects. I have this sentence you wrote on opiate addiction highlighted: "People are in pain, because unless you went to college, the only way you'll earn a decent living is by breaking your body or risking your life." It's so rare, almost like a Bigfoot sighting, to see this point about addiction raised in discussions about class and work in America. There's often a romanticization of "the trades" out there by people who do work in offices, who seem to want to ignore how physical that labor is, and how a lot of people can't keep doing it for their whole life.

Not at the pace that we're required to work in our Protestant work ethic. A month off in August, like the Europeans have, might have a lot of effect on how our bodies feel. But we don't have time to heal. We can't go to a doctor. How do you get better if you don't get medical care? Even if you have health insurance, you don't have time off to do it.

There's constant jokes about rednecks and their opioids. It's not "rednecks and their opioids," people are in pain. And the doctor prescribes them opioids because they have to go back to work the next day. Or their buddy gives them a few because they have to go back to work the next day, and it's really easy to get addicted. I got addicted after I had a sinus surgery. It took maybe a week of intense pain and horrific withdrawals that were real. And I don't even like opioids, I get nauseated on them, so I don't take them. But yeah, it's really easy to get addicted.

Let's talk about the word "cult." Your book is not a tell-all cult memoir. But you write about your childhood with the Children of God as the big secret you carried for much of your life. If you start listening for the word "cult" it's kind of everywhere these days. Donald Trump voters are a cult. QAnon is a cult. CrossFit is a cult. On one hand, maybe we're diluting this term. But I think your book also makes a strong case that cult-like leadership behavior shapes a lot of our mainstream institutions, too.

Yeah, I think that's what I wanted to say with that. I spent most of my life just twitching at the word "cult." But when you start talking about and thinking about what it actually was, it's not all that different from what most of us experience as Americans, or as employees of a store that want you to be loyal to the store instead of paying you [well]. We throw the word around a lot, but maybe it's appropriate. And maybe it's fine that it's diluted, because it's apt. Our groupthink, our tribalism, our gather together to follow personalities instead of policy [tendencies] in politics. It's kind of bizarre, but I thought [being in a cult] was this huge secret, and it turns out pretty much every American can relate to it.

There's aspects of it in how you write about the military. There's definitely strong parallels made to mainstream religions, as well, and evangelicalism.

That was the shocking thing, coming out of the cult and realizing none of their beliefs were really that weird.

I really thought it was just a Children of God thing: We thought the Antichrist was coming, there would be a mark of the beast. And now, there are entire Facebook groups dedicated to warning you the vaccine's going to insert the mark of the beast into you. And it's still a little baffling to me. I really thought the end of the world would be more exciting and less f**king stupid. I'm supposed to be fighting the Antichrist, and I'm just not putting a bra on and watching Netflix.

Speaking of Netflix. There was that "SNL" musical sketch a few weeks ago about women who like murder shows, and in the end, it takes that little turn when Nick Jonas comes home and is like, baby, let me introduce you to the cult show. There was a violent crime in my extended family, and I get twitchy about the idea of it popping up as a story on one of those murder comedy podcasts. So I wonder what it's like for you to see cult shows — docuseries like "Wild Wild Country" and the NXIVM exposés — out there in the pop culture discourse?

It doesn't make it fun to tell people you were in a cult when people start thinking about NXIVM. That documentary is problematic for me anyway, because you're asking people who've been out of a cult for a week to explain what happened to them. I mean, f**k, it's been 20 years, I still don't know what the f**k happened to my family. I wrote a book about it, but it's not an easy thing to explain. You can't be the expert on your own life, which is a really weird thing to say for someone who just wrote a book about my own, but — [laughs] I'm f**king selling it here —

This career suicide you keep trying to commit is not going to work.

I'm going to tank the book, goddamnit! Nobody read it. Please don't read my book. The more I tell people not to, they're just going to. We don't really follow orders really well. I do love that about Americans. [Laughs.]

I used to think we were watching the crime shows, especially as women, as homework. What situations to avoid, and what men to avoid. But we kind of already know not to get into a stranger's car. Also, now we do it as practice, to get any place you get in a stranger's Uber and drive around. I used to think we're doing this as homework, but I don't think — we're just feeding off of people's tragedies for entertainment. I don't know why we do that, except maybe our home lives are really too hard to look at. It's easier to look at something shocking and weird in someone else's life than understand why our lives are f**king miserable.

To go back to what you were saying earlier about companies that demand loyalty from their workers, maybe we're also looking for recognition in these more extreme cases?

Yeah, it might be. It also seems like more of an easy fix: Don't join a cult. Cool. Wrote that one down. If he starts branding people, you should probably leave. Those are all pretty easy fixes. But you know, we're looking at the next 20 years of our lives before we can retire going to work every day for a company that is a cult because they don't want to pay us or give us time off, in a country where we can't even get f**king health care or our college paid for. "Walk out when they start branding people," is pretty easy advice but we can't really escape our own lives.

Yeah, maybe it's supposed to make us feel a little better to like we're not we're not there yet.

America is kind of founded on Oh, at least I'm not that guy. That is what we've got.

You were joking earlier: Don't read my book, don't read my book! For writers who write memoir and essays, people read their work and they feel like they're very close to the writer. When in truth they only know what you're allowing them to know. This is a crafted work of art, and they're the reader, not a confidant. You've probably experienced the weird side of that: people feeling like they know you well enough to comment on you as if you're either a very intimate friend, or even like a character on a show that they watch. I'm curious about how you navigate that public attention now as a writer in light of what you've written about having to keep so much of your life private for so long.

Yelling "I'm a private person!" if you've just written a memoir is kind of like yelling, "I'm not crazy!" but it doesn't really jibe with the fact that I just put out a book of really personal essays. But they are kind of a snapshot. And I don't know that people understand that. We don't really understand the parasocial relationship as consumers. I understand a little more now that I'm on the other side of it. I whine a lot about not getting a book tour [because of the pandemic] because I feel like I'm getting robbed, but at the same time, I do get to avoid a whole lot of people trying to hug me. I don't think people wrote reviews of any David Sedaris book talking about how much they wanted to hug him. I don't think that happened. I don't think anyone's ever called Augusten Burroughs "brave" in a review, and I think there is a little bit of a sexist bent to it.

I put the book out. And that's what you get. We're all in therapy to figure out walls versus boundaries. And I'm trying to step away from Twitter a little bit. I mean, I'm still compulsively tweeting, God help me. But I'm trying not to put so much personal information out there. I got on there because I wanted to connect to other writers and figure out how to publish a book, but that's done now. And while I'm still trying to connect to people — we're all f**king lonely, sitting around in the pandemic, trying to talk to someone — but yeah, I don't want to be consumed, and it feels a lot like I am being consumed for entertainment.

You are a very funny writer. I think there is this perception out there, perhaps, that comedy is natural, it's innate, it's easy, if you're a funny person anyway. Not that it's a craft, a skill, that takes conscious work. You use humor very skillfully and adeptly in your essays in a way that feels like an act of writerly generosity, and it's a craft element that isn't always highlighted when we talk about essays on difficult subjects.

It is a skill level. How do you make child abuse hilarious?

How did you develop that muscle? Because you are very purposefully funny about topics which are also horrific.

Gallows humor has been around for a little while. I didn't invent it. We joke to process things.

I can get kind of emotional writing something and I want to make a point and I want to drive it home. But you have to add a little bit of levity or give people the tools to read it. Especially in the beginning, we add a few funny things to like, Hey, we're going to get through this. It's not going to be that bad. I'm not going to make you need a shower after you read this book. It's just practice. And Twitter came in handy there a lot. How to tell a joke? Follow a bunch of comics and watch the way they work, watch how they arrange a story so that it's funny, not tragic. The most tragic things can be the funniest. I just think it's the way our our emotions work. We like that release.

Who are you reading right now? What books are you excited about?

Speaking of serial murderers and podcasts, Elon Green wrote this book ["Last Call"] about a serial killer in the '90s who was killing gay men in New York. And he did it a different way, I think, than any of the podcasts. I tweeted about this other day, but really, really the worst thing I think that can happen to you besides being murdered by a serial killer, is to have someone on a podcast giggling about it. He put the victims in it first. He tells their stories. And they're treated with such tenderness. And he doesn't make them the perfect victim. It's this history of gay New York, which of course, I'm fascinated by because I was too scared to go to New York. So I like to read about it.

Your book gives a really great snapshot of a particular time in gay D.C. too, and also in the South, which is often overlooked in LGBTQ narratives. Like what it's like to try to find the one gay bar in a 100-mile radius of your rural town.

You don't think about it when you're living it. But any Gen Xer is now really horrified when it occurs to us that people are talking about the '90s like we used to talk about the '60s.

Jesus Christ. [Laughs.]

I'm sorry I just ruined your week.

I routinely feel old. But Don't Ask Don't Tell was only repealed 10 years ago. And I feel like that's something that has been memory-holed fast, like, well, that's over! In the same way that people tried to pretend that because we elected a Black man president, racism is now over! And the progress we have made feels so fragile right now. I think it's important that books like yours and Elon Green's are chronicling that time, which was not that long ago. But it is often treated like ancient history to be swept under the rug.

Yeah, we really don't like to look at our pasts. Which is the f**king problem. Because we're doing it to trans people now. There's a [North Carolina state] law that just passed where teachers have to report to parents if a kid doesn't fit the correct gender performance. And that's every tomboy. Every boy who's a little bit into art. And God help us, lesbians like to clearly pretend that trans rights have nothing to do with them. But it does. If someone is being oppressed, it really does affect all of us. And forgetting where we came from doesn't f**king help. We haven't won yet. I don't know that we're ever going to win. You do actually have to still keep fighting these things. Because yes, gay people are allowed in the military. And now finally trans people are allowed to be in the military. But they're not allowed to play high school sports?

People like to say about the generation coming up that they're not going to stand for this bigotry any longer, so its days are numbered. Is this the last gasp of institutional bigotry trying to sink its claws in before it's replaced? Or are we going to be fighting the same fights for years to come?

I mean, I thought Gen X would get rid of a lot of it because we were always watching MTV and they told us racism was bad. And we watched "The Real World," and we watched our favorite gay character die of AIDS. I thought we would make some changes. We've made a few. I have a lot of hope for the next generation that they'll make a few more. But that's a lot of weight to put on an 18-year-old.

A stunning 'victory for Julian': UK blocks extradition for Wikileaks' Assange to the US

In a stunning decision, a British judge has blocked the extradition of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to the United States, saying he would not be safe in a U.S. prison due to his deteriorated mental state. In 2019, Assange was indicted in the United States on 17 counts of violating the Espionage Act related to the publication of classified documents exposing U.S. war crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. The United States has already announced plans to appeal the ruling. Press freedom advocates have campaigned against Assange's prosecution for years, arguing it would set a dangerous precedent for prosecuting journalists. The blocked extradition due to concern over prison safety rather than press freedom shows that "this is not the end of the road," says Assange legal adviser Jennifer Robinson. "This is still a terrible precedent." We also speak with Jameel Jaffer, founding director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, who says that while the decision is a "very significant victory" for Assange, the judge has largely sided with the U.S. prosecution.

Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I'm Amy Goodman.

A British judge has blocked the extradition of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to the United States, where he would have faced up to 175 years in prison. In a stunning decision, Judge Vanessa Baraitser said Assange would not be safe in U.S. prisons due to the state of his mental health. Judge Vanessa Baraitser said, quote, "I am satisfied that, in these harsh conditions, Mr. Assange's mental health would deteriorate causing him to commit suicide. … I find that the mental condition of Mr. Assange is such that it would be oppressive to extradite him to the United States of America," she said. The United States said it would appeal the ruling.

Supporters of Assange, including former British Ambassador Craig Murray, celebrated outside the London courthouse this morning.

CRAIG MURRAY: Today, we are swept away by our joy of the fact —
ASSANGE SUPPORTER: Free Assange!
CRAIG MURRAY: — the fact that Julian will shortly be with us. We have a judgment which I think makes an excuse to deliver justice, an excuse based on the appalling conditions in American prisons, an excuse based on the effect that would have on American mental health, and perhaps a sign — perhaps a sign that the authorities are not prepared to follow through the persecution and destruction of a man for political reasons.

AMY GOODMAN: Julian Assange's partner, Stella Morris, also spoke shortly after the judge's ruling.

STELLA MORRIS: I had hoped that today would be the day that Julian would come home. Today is not that day, but that day will come soon. As long as Julian has to endure suffering and isolation as an unconvicted prisoner in Belmarsh prison, and as long as our children continue to be bereft of their father's love and affection, we cannot celebrate. We will celebrate the day he comes home.
Today is a victory for Julian. Today's victory is the first step towards justice in this case. We are pleased that the court has recognized the seriousness and inhumanity of what he has endured and what he faces. But let's not forget, the indictment in the U.S. has not been dropped. We are extremely concerned that the U.S. government has decided to appeal this decision. It continues to want to punish Julian and make him disappear into the deepest, darkest hole of the U.S. prison system for the rest of his life. That can never happen. We will never accept that journalism is a crime in this country or any other.

AMY GOODMAN: Stella Morris, Julian Assange's partner, is the mother of two of his children.

In 2019, Julian Assange was indicted in the United States on 17 counts of violating the Espionage Act related to the publication of classified documents exposing U.S. war crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Press freedom advocates campaigned against his prosecution, saying it would set a dangerous precedent for prosecuting journalists.

Assange has been locked up at Belmarsh, one of Britain's most high-security prisons since his arrest in April of 2019. He had spent the previous seven years inside the Ecuadorian Embassy, where he had been granted political asylum.

In a statement, Amnesty International said, quote, "We welcome the fact that Julian Assange will not be sent to the USA, but this does not absolve the UK from having engaged in this politically-motivated process at the behest of the USA and putting media freedom and freedom of expression on trial," they said.

We're joined by two guests. Joining us from Sydney, Australia, is Jennifer Robinson, human rights attorney who's been advising Julian Assange and WikiLeaks since 2010. And here in New York, Jameel Jaffer is with us, founding director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. Last year he submitted expert testimony to Judge Baraitser in the Assange extradition proceeding.

Jennifer, let's go to you first in Australia. You're usually inside the courtroom. Can you respond to this stunning decision of the judge?

JENNIFER ROBINSON: Well, I attended remotely from Sydney. And it is a welcome decision in the sense that the judge recognized in her judgment that sending — that Julian should not be extradited to the United States, but on the narrow grounds that his extradition is oppressive, not for press freedom concerns, but because of the specific medical condition in his declining mental health and the specific prison conditions that he would face once returned to the United States, those being special administrative measures, which is effectively solitary confinement.

This is still very concerning, and free speech groups should still be concerned. We will be looking more closely at the judgment in the coming days. But she agreed with the U.S. prosecution in all other matters, including in respect of the free speech arguments that we had raised about the application of the First Amendment, the unprecedented nature of this case, and the fact that Julian wouldn't get a fair trial once returned to the United States.

So, while we are obviously pleased with the outcome — I'm delighted for his partner — and this has been a very long, 10-year battle for us, the fact that she's now decided not to extradite him is a positive one, but I think, for free speech groups, for journalists everywhere, this is not the end of the road. And it sets — I think it shows that this is still a terrible precedent.

AMY GOODMAN: And the U.S. says they will appeal this. What does this mean? I mean, on the one hand, you have the possibility of him being freed this week, but could that appeal mean he remains in jail?

JENNIFER ROBINSON: We will be making a bail application on Wednesday morning. That was decided this morning. But, of course, the U.S. has two weeks to appeal. They've already indicated that they will appeal, and have indicated that they will likely oppose any bail application.

So, the right and correct position is that now that we have won this first battle, that he ought to be released on remand pending any appeal outcome. If the U.S. is granted permission to appeal — because they must apply for permission — this could be pushed off for several months, perhaps later in the year. And he's already spent, as I said, almost over a decade under some form of confinement, almost two years in a high-security prison, because of this U.S. extradition request. And it's really time that the United States puts an end to this. This is an extraordinary prosecution. It never should have been started in the first place. The Obama administration chose not to indict. This case needs to be put to a close, and Julian should be allowed to get on with his life.

AMY GOODMAN: And for those who aren't familiar with what it is he released, can you explain this case and why he was inside the — in political exile inside in the Ecuadorian Embassy for so many years and then taken by police and put into this supermax Belmarsh prison?

JENNIFER ROBINSON: The indictment and the prosecution from the United States in this extradition case relates solely to publications back in 2010, 2011. This included the publication of the Afghan War logs, the Iraq War logs, of course the famous "Collateral Murder" video showing the murder of journalists in Iraq by U.S. soldiers, and the U.S. diplomatic cables. What we saw were evidence of war crimes, human rights abuse.

And what was really important about the extradition proceedings is that we had evidence from human rights lawyers from around the world about the importance of WikiLeaks' disclosures in human rights accountability efforts, whether we talk about Guantánamo Bay, the Iraq War and so on.

So, this is what he was facing prosecution for, 175 years in prison for these important disclosures. And what's troubling about today's decision is that the judge has found that he could have been extradited had it not been for his medical condition. And that's a terrifying precedent for journalists.

AMY GOODMAN: Jameel Jaffer, if you could respond — you filed expert testimony in his case — to this, again, stunning decision that was made by the judge in Britain this morning?

JAMEEL JAFFER: Yeah. I mean, I do think that the decision is important and surprising, a very significant victory for Julian Assange. I think the press freedom implications are more complicated.

The judge — while ultimately holding that Assange can't be extradited to the United States on the basis of his mental health and the conditions under which he would be held if he were extradited here, the judge largely endorses the U.S. prosecution theory. And that theory is based on an indictment that sweeps very, very broadly, that basically the indictment is an effort to hold Assange criminally responsible for acts that journalists engage in all the time. And it doesn't matter whether Assange himself is properly characterized as a journalist. That may be an important debate, but legally it's completely irrelevant. The important fact is that Assange has been indicted on the grounds that he engaged in activities like cultivating confidential sources, maintaining their confidentiality or maintaining the confidentiality of their identities, and publishing classified secrets. And, of course, those things, all of those things, are integral to national security journalism.

And the press freedom fear here is that the prosecution of Assange, and even the indictment itself, will deter journalism that is important and necessary and that should be regarded as protected by the First Amendment. And I think that this ruling is, again, a victory for Assange, but insofar as it's an endorsement of the U.S.'s prosecution theory and of the underlying indictment, I think that that indictment is going to continue to cast a kind of shadow over investigative journalism.

AMY GOODMAN: In 2014, I interviewed Julian Assange inside the Ecuadorian Embassy. He talked about the challenges whistleblowers face in U.S. courts.

JULIAN ASSANGE: It is not possible for a national security whistleblower now in the United States to have a fair trial. It's not possible to have a fair trial because all the trials are held in Alexandria, Virginia, where the jury pool is comprised of the highest density of military and government employees in all of the United States. It's not possible to have a fair trial, because the U.S. government has a precedent of applying state secret privilege to prevent the defense from using material that is classified in their favor. It's not possible to have a fair trial, because as a defendant in a national security case, you are held under special administrative measures, which makes it very hard to look at any of the material in your case, to meet with your lawyers, to speak to people, etc. So, this is — it's just simply not a fair system.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that's Julian Assange inside the Ecuadorian Embassy, where he had a political asylum in 2014. We may have among the most extensive global TV-radio broadcast interviews with Assange, a number of times inside the embassy, also, before that, when he was under house arrest. And you can go to democracynow.org for that.

But, Jameel, last week, you tweeted, "It's crucial to understand that the case isn't just incidentally about press freedom. The whole point of the case is to criminalize national security journalism." So, let's talk about that. In fact, if you were listening to the judge today, before the end — and I want to ask Jen Robinson about this — when she talked about his mental condition and what this could mean in U.S. prisons — a real indictment of U.S. prisons — it did sound like she was going in another direction on the issue of press freedom.

JAMEEL JAFFER: Yeah. I mean, I think that what you have to understand here that the Trump administration or the Department of Justice could have indicted Assange on much narrower grounds, and they did initially indict him on a violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. And that prosecution would have raised some press freedom concerns, too, but the press freedom concerns would have been much less significant than the ones that are raised by this Espionage Act indictment. So there was a decision made at some point to indict Assange on these broader grounds, even though narrower grounds might have been available. And the decision was made even though the Obama administration decided that there was no meaningful way to distinguish Assange's activities from the activities of journalists and mainstream media organizations in the United States. So there was a very deliberate decision to go after Assange with these very broad claims claims, even though — these very broad charges, even though the Justice Department itself had concluded, under President Obama, that distinguishing Assange from journalists and mainstream news organizations was legally difficult, if not impossible.

And I think that the only way to explain that decision is to understand that the whole point of the prosecution, the whole point of the indictment, is to cast a shadow over investigative journalism, and national security journalism in particular. The point of this prosecution is not so much to go after Assange, because they could have done that on narrower grounds. The point of the prosecution is to criminalize national security journalism. I understand that that sounds extreme, but I really don't think that there's any other possible explanation for the decision to go after Assange in this particular way. The point is to get at the activities that journalists are engaged in all the time — again, protecting confidential sources, communicating with them confidentially, cultivating sources, publishing classified secrets. These are the pillars of investigative journalism, of national security journalism in particular. And those things are the target of the indictment.

AMY GOODMAN: Jen Robinson, were you able to see him at Belmarsh?

JENNIFER ROBINSON: We haven't been able to see Julian at Belmarsh since the beginning of the year, since the COVID restrictions were implemented. I think it's really important to talk about the prison conditions he's facing in the United Kingdom so far because of this U.S. extradition request. So, we were not able to visit him in person since March, since the outbreak of COVID. He hasn't had social visits. It's made our ability to prepare for this case incredibly difficult.

But the isolation that he has suffered already because of the prison conditions in the U.K. and because of the COVID pandemic — there's been an outbreak of COVID on his prison block in recent weeks, which has meant that he's effectively been 24/7 in his cell, not even allowed to leave in order to wash, because of the risk of contracting COVID. And we are very concerned about what would happen to him, given his ongoing medical conditions as a result of the many years in confinement, the complications that he would suffer as a result of that.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Jen, when Joe Biden was U.S. vice president, he likened WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to a "hi-tech terrorist." That was the strongest criticism from the Obama administration. Reading a piece from The Guardian, it says, "Biden claimed that by leaking diplomatic cables Assange had put lives at risk and made it more difficult for the US to conduct its business around the world." Is it conceivable that President Trump would pardon Julian Assange? And would that matter at this point, given that he will not be sent to the United States, at least at this point? The U.S. has appealed.

JENNIFER ROBINSON: It is still conceivable that — President Trump still has the power to pardon Julian Assange at this point. And, of course, while this is an important decision, this decision protects Julian from extradition from the United Kingdom; the indictment and the prosecution still remains afoot. This is an extraordinary prosecution. And I agree with everything that Jameel has had to say about the impact in the United States with respect to First Amendment protections, but it's also concerning for journalists outside of the country, because, let's not forget, the impact of this ruling is that she would have extradited him had it not been for his particular concerns around his mental health. So, this is actually still a very dangerous precedent and one that — the fact that we've won this first step doesn't mean that it's going to be the end of the road. There's still going to be an appeal. And I think all British journalists and journalists outside of the United States need to be looking at this decision, as well, to see the fact that they could still potentially be extradited under this precedent. And that's dangerous.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Jameel Jaffer, I asked Jennifer Robinson to describe what it was that Julian Assange had released, among them a video that he called "Collateral" — that WikiLeaks called "Collateral [Murder]," which exposed a U.S. Apache helicopter opening fire on a group of Iraqi residents in New Baghdad, an area of Baghdad. They opened fire from the Apache helicopter, having gotten approval from back at the forward operating base. And in addition to killing the Iraqis on the ground, they killed two Reuters employees: an up-and-coming journalist, Namir Noor-Eldeen, a videographer, and his driver, Saeed Chmagh, who was more than a driver. He often took Reuters journalists around when they were in Iraq. He was the father of four. It was a horrifying image. Reuters had, year after year, demanded from the U.S. government if they had video. And it was that video that WikiLeaks released, among, well, millions of other documents. But the significance of this, Jameel, and also —

JAMEEL JAFFER: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: — how U.S. news organizations, like The New York Times, like The Washington Post, treated or backed, or didn't back, Julian Assange, though they certainly used the information he released?

JAMEEL JAFFER: Mm-hmm. Well, I mean, there's no doubt that that particular disclosure was hugely significant. And it's not the only disclosure that WikiLeaks has made that I think has made sort of dramatic contributions to public understanding of government policy, and national security policy in particular.

But I think it's important to think not only about the disclosures that WikiLeaks has made, but rather the disclosures that other news organizations have made over the past 20 years that would not have been possible, or would have been criminalized, if one accepts the theory that the U.S. government is asserting in this particular case, because if it — you know, if it were in fact the case that the publication of national security secrets was itself a violation of the Espionage Act and not constitutionally protected — which is the government's theory here — then virtually everything we know about the conduct of the so-called war on terror, we wouldn't know it. You know, we wouldn't know about the CIA's secret prisons but for disclosures of government insiders to The Washington Post, which The Washington Post then published in 2005. We wouldn't know about the warrantless wiretapping program, which The New York Times disclosed. We wouldn't know about the abuses of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan, which The New Yorker and 60 Minutes disclosed. Like, all of that stuff was based on disclosures by government insiders to media organizations, which then published classified secrets.

And that is precisely the basis on which the government is prosecuting Assange. And I know that there are factual distinctions between the activities that Assange has engaged in, the activities that some New York Times journalists have engaged in. Those factual distinctions don't ultimately matter to the indictment. The indictment, at the end of the day, charges Assange with publishing classified facts. And if you accept that publishing classified facts is not just a violation of the Espionage Act, but not constitutionally protected, then you are endangering not just the kinds of disclosures that WikiLeaks has undertaken, but the disclosures that other media organizations engage in literally every day.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Jameel, I want to ask you about the push to pardon NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. During a news conference last year, President Trump suggested he would consider granting Edward Snowden a pardon.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: There are many, many people — it seems to be a split decision, that many people think that he should be somehow treated differently, and other people think he did very bad things. And I'm going to take a very good look at it.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that's President Trump. Your final thoughts, Jameel?

JAMEEL JAFFER: Yeah. I mean, I think we should welcome a pardon of Snowden, whoever it comes from. I would have welcomed it had it come from President Obama, and I would welcome it if it came from President Trump. I think that Snowden has contributed a huge amount to public debate about government surveillance. There are all sorts of reforms to the law that can be traced to Snowden's disclosures in particular. Snowden's disclosures helped us understand the extent to which government officials had misled the public about the scope of the NSA's activities. I think it would be entirely appropriate to pardon him. And I think that it's — you know, it's intolerable that whistleblowers, who report to the public gross abuses of civil liberties and human rights, pay this very high cost for those disclosures, while the people, the officials, who authorize those abuses are appointed to higher and higher posts. I think that's intolerable. And for that reason, I would welcome a pardon.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you for being with us. And again, Edward Snowden just announced he just had a baby with his partner. They live in Moscow now. This is Democracy Now! I want to thank Jameel Jaffer, Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. He is the director there. And I want to thank Jennifer Robinson, speaking to us from Sydney, Australia. She is an adviser to Julian Assange and WikiLeaks.

Next up, as Georgia prepares for two Senate runoff elections on Tuesday, President Trump caught on tape threatening Georgia's Republican secretary of state to overturn Joe Biden's victory in the state. Stay with us.

Here's the fundamental reason so many are obsessed with Trump

Are we addicted to Donald Trump? It's a question that's haunting journalists and political commentators, most of whom hate Trump but cannot deny that his name drives traffic and ratings. Even though Trump lost the election and Joe Biden will be the next president, Trump continues to be the big attention draw for political websites and cable news networks.

Part of that is completely understandable. Trump is still big news. He literally spent the past few weeks attempting a coup. While he failed, that doesn't change the history-making fact that he even tried, or that he got so much support. Certainly Biden, whose main activity is finding boring-but-competent people to staff his administration, can't compete with that, and there's no real indication that he wants to. (Unlike Trump, Biden views governing as a job and not just an opportunity to get attention.)

But there is no doubt that the media remains flatly fascinated with Trump, in no small part because, as Salon's Andrew O'Hehir argued Monday, "our readers and viewers have enabled and encouraged us at every step" and stories about Trump "outperform every other category of reporting, commentary or analysis we can possibly offer."

As Philip Bump at the Washington Post documented Tuesday, since Trump first announced his run for president, he "is the political figure who garners the most search interest, cable news mentions or screen time each month since June 2015."

Because of all this, it's become quite fashionable in some circles to haughtily declare that all this interest is tawdry, and that if we simply ignored Trump, he would go away. Hardly a week goes by on social media where I don't get some reader who, sick of it all, will lash out at me personally and demand that I stop writing about, tweeting about or otherwise giving attention to Trump.

But the command to ignore him didn't make the bully disappear in junior high school and it certainly doesn't work with the president. Nor can Trump's importance in our politics be easily reduced to a pop psychology assumption that all fascination is inherently addiction and therefore bad.

The reality is that the Trump obsession isn't really about Trump himself anyway. It's about his followers.

Don't get me wrong. I confess some interest in his psychology, which our traffic shows is widely shared. But let's face it — even on the sociopath scale, Trump's not as interesting as more exotic specimens like Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer. As a person, Trump is little more than the aged version of the yuppie villain in an '80s comedy, with a sweater tied around his neck and a sneer for the scruffy heroes. He only has two emotional registers, whining and bullying. He's boring.

Bump's own numbers show this. Prior to his presidential campaign, Trump wasn't an object of widespread fascination, no matter how much he hustled for attention. Ratings for his reality show were in the toilet and most people didn't think about him at all. It was only when Trump started to get support from everyday voters that he became the focal point of American politics.

The reason that Trump captures so much attention, year in and year out, is because of his followers. How did this two-bit moron who can barely read manage to attract a loyal following — one that has apparently grown from the 63 million people voted for him in 2016 to the 74 million who turned out in 2020? These people adore him, so much so that a quarter-million Americans dead and millions more unemployed only made them more determined to give it all up for the orange guy in an ill-fitting suit who wants to end democracy as we know it. It's a legitimately fascinating mystery.

The devotion of the Red Hats is, if anything, more bizarre because Trump is so tiresome. Going to one of his infamous rallies, for instance, is volunteering to be tortured, like being strapped to a chair while the biggest boor in the world rants incoherently at you for over an hour. Listening to him ping-pong endlessly between whining and bragging is a form of boredom that makes solitary confinement seem pleasant by comparison.

And it's not like his rally-goers felt differently. You could see it on the faces in the crowds, as his supporters would drift away, not really listening except to perk up to applaud at the mention of buzzwords ("Crooked Hillary," "build the wall", "Hunter Biden"), but never really paying much attention to what Trump was actually saying.

They weren't there for him, after all. They were there as a show of force, to let the hated liberals know that they had the numbers and the determination — so much so that they'd sacrifice a night of their preciously short lives listening to a braggart ramble on about windmills and and lie about his own vitality for an hour. Trump will never understand this, but it was never about him. He was there for them, a vehicle for their resentments and, critically, their will to power. He was the weapon they wielded in their war to exert dominance over American politics, even as their actual numbers dwindle.

This movement is what is interesting, because it's ultimately, about the rise of American fascism. It's a real threat, as demonstrated by Biden's uncomfortably close margins in the same swing states Hillary Clinton lost in 2016. Indeed, it's arguable that these forces still won in 2020, as they (probably) kept control of the Senate, gained seats in the House and have overtaken the federal courts, kneecapping the ability of the majority of American voters, who support the Democrats, to exert their political will.

That the most powerful country in the world is being held hostage by an authoritarian, racist minority drunk on conspiracy theories is the biggest story in politics. It's part of a larger story about the entire world in the grip of rising authoritarianism. Their power will define Joe Biden's presidency. Their ability to cripple him will matter more than any of his Cabinet picks or even his executive orders.

Trump is just the shorthand for this very real and ongoing problem. The reason it feels like we can't quit Trump is that we can't quit the people who elected him. As Bob Cesca argued this week at Salon, we shouldn't pander to those people or seek to placate them, but we also can't just ignore them. Not while they still control so many levers of power.

Nowadays, most educated people reject the "great man" theory of history. We understand, intellectually at least, that even legendary villains like Hitler or heroes like FDR were a product of their time and not acting out of some cosmic destiny.

But it's still hard not to reduce politics to personality. Our brains are hardwired to focus on individuals, who have agency and psychology that we can understand, rather than the more diffuse motivations of the crowd.

But Trump could keel over tomorrow, never to tweet again, and he wouldn't go away. He might even grow in power, made into a martyr now that he can no longer embarrass his followers with his routine bouts of public idiocy, such as when he suggested people inject Lysol. Trump the symbol was always far more important than Trump the man. And no matter what happens to Trump the man, the movement he represents remains a live threat to American democracy, and to the world.

Bill Barr battles the rule of law: In this war, there are no bystanders

"With your law degrees, you will have immense power to do great harm," Harvard Law Professor Duncan Kennedy admonished our one-L torts class in 1976.

A few months later, former President Richard M. Nixon (JD, Duke, '37) — who thought Watergate had been a political "witch hunt" — uttered his infamous line, "Well, when the president does it, that means it is not illegal." And his former attorney general, John N. Mitchell (JD, Fordham, '38), was headed to prison.

More than 40 years after that class, United States Attorney General William P. Barr (JD, George Washington, '77) has driven home the gravity of Prof. Kennedy's admonition. When the story of the Trump era is written, history will pose a single defining question to every American lawyer: In the fight to preserve the rule of law, which side were you on?America has seen which side William Barr is on. As the nation's top law enforcement officer, the attorney general represents the "People of the United States." Early in his tenure, Barr jettisoned that role.

Operating as Trump's personal advocate, Barr has abused the power of his office to undermine the Trump-Russia investigation. Although troublesome, Barr's actions are best viewed as a case study in his modus operandi. What Barr has done to that investigation and its key players, he can do to anything and anyone. That makes Barr's methods ominous for the rule of law itself.

Hiring Barr was no accident. Early in 2017, before special counsel Robert Mueller's appointment, Trump feared that he was losing control of the Trump-Russia investigation. He was furious at then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions' (JD, Alabama, 73) for recusing himself from the ongoing probe. Referring to his former personal attorney, notorious fixer, and top aide to Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy (R-WI) during the investigations of communist activity in the 1950s, Trump lamented, "Where's my Roy Cohn?"

A year later, he got his answer. Barr sent Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein (JD, Harvard, '89) an unsolicited 19-page memo challenging the premise of Mueller's obstruction of justice investigation and urging that the special counsel should not even be permitted to question Trump. In William Barr, Trump had finally found his Roy Cohn.

First came the lies and deceptions. According to The Washington Post, as of July 9, 2020, Trump had made more than 20,000 "false or misleading claims" since assuming office. Like Trump, Barr understands the rhetorical and psychological concepts of primacy and repetition. Whoever speaks first and most frequently on an important topic has the upper hand in controlling the resulting narrative, regardless of its veracity.

From his first days in office, Barr has reinforced Trump's false assertions that the Trump-Russia investigation never should have happened. In the maelstrom that followed, truth became a casualty. So it's important to start with a brief reprise of the Mueller report's key conclusions:"[T]he Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome." (Vol. I, p. 5)

The Trump campaign "expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts." (Vol. I, p. 5)

Trump tried repeatedly to obstruct the investigation into his campaign ties to Russia.

And Mueller concluded, "[I]f we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment… Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him." (Vol. II, p. 2)

Barr's dissembling prevented the truth from gaining traction. Two days after Mueller gave Barr his final report confidentially — including summaries suitable for public dissemination — Barr sent a letter to Congress with his own misleading "summary" of Mueller's findings. It was so deceptive that Mueller himself complained to Barr immediately, saying that Barr's letter "did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance of this Office's work and conclusions." The result, Mueller wrote, "is public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation."But public confusion was the objective because it led to public indifference. For another three weeks, Barr did not release even a redacted version of Mueller's report, and Mueller's dissenting letter to Barr did not surface until two weeks after that. During the intervening month-and-a-half, Barr's mischaracterizations became the only story of Mueller's findings, and they stuck. Primacy gave Barr the edge and repetition then took over.

Immediately, Trump used Barr's spin to reinforce his big lie. "No collusion, No obstruction, Complete and Total EXONERATION," Trump tweeted — three lies in a single post.

Then Barr made things worse — or from Trump's perspective, better. Two hours before releasing a redacted version of Mueller's report, Barr held a press conference to spin its conclusions again. He repeated Trump's false "no collusion" meme four times.

On obstruction, Barr also made this disingenuous claim: "The White House fully cooperated with the special counsel's investigation, providing unfettered access to campaign and White House documents, directing senior aides to testify freely, and asserting no privilege claims. And at the same time, the president took no act that in fact deprived the special counsel of the documents and witnesses necessary to complete his investigation."

Here's the truth:

From its inception, Trump attacked Mueller's investigation and repeatedly pressured then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions and White House counsel Don McGahn (JD, Widener, '94) to curtail or terminate it. (Vol. II, pp. 77-120)

Trump refused Mueller's requests for an interview. (Vol. II, pp. C-1-2)

Mueller said Trump's written answers to his questions were "inadequate." (Vol. II, C-2)

Trump dangled pardons aimed at influencing key witnesses, including his former national security adviser Mike Flynn, former campaign chairman Paul Manafort (JD, Georgetown, '74), and a person whose name was initially redacted from Mueller's report but who we now know is Trump's longtime confidant, Roger Stone. Trump also tried to influence and intimidate his former personal attorney, Michael Cohen (JD, Thomas M. Cooley, '91). (Vol. II, pp. 120-156)

The Rule of Law

In 1789, Thomas Jefferson wrote that a well-informed electorate is a prerequisite to democracy. Barr kneecapped the truth. When the redacted version of Mueller's report finally appeared, The Washington Post awarded him "Three Pinocchios" for his "incomplete or misleading" descriptions of Mueller's investigation and conclusions. But Barr had withheld even a redacted version so long that his false spin had irrevocably infected the body politic.

Fortunately, the rule of law has courageous defenders who honor the oath that every attorney takes to uphold the rule of law. In an opinion on a Freedom of Information Act request for an unredacted copy of Mueller's report, U.S. District Court Judge Reggie B. Walton blasted Barr's pre-release "distortions" and "lack of candor." In a remarkable ruling, the respected federal judge wrote that he could not trust the attorney general of the United States:

"The speed by which Attorney General Barr released to the public the summary of Special Counsel Mueller's principal conclusions, coupled with the fact that Attorney General Barr failed to provide a thorough representation of the findings in the Mueller Report, causes the Court to question whether Attorney General Barr's intent was to create a one-sided narrative about the Mueller Report — a narrative that is clearly in some respects substantively at odds with the redacted version of the Mueller Report." (Elec. Privacy Info. Ctr. v. US Dept. of Justice, No-19-810 RBW, slip op. p. 17-18 (D.D.C. Mar 5, 2020)

Judge Walton could not reconcile "certain public representations made by Attorney General Barr with the findings in the Mueller Report." The inconsistencies caused him "to seriously question whether Attorney General Barr made a calculated attempt to influence public discourse about the Mueller Report in favor of President Trump despite certain findings in the redacted version of the Mueller Report to the contrary." (Op. p. 19)

The court's Mar. 5, 2020 rebuke came a year too late. As Jonathan Swift wrote more than two centuries ago, "Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it." With Barr's help, Trump created a narrative that was at odds with the evidence set forth in Mueller's report. Barr had fired his first bullet at the rule of law and it was a bulls-eye.

But lies and false spin were just Barr's opening gambit. Trump wanted the entire investigation discredited — destroyed root and branch. Barr quickly weaponized the Justice Department. He used his prosecutorial powers as a vehicle to pursue Trump's attacks on those responsible for launching the investigation in the first place.

In a revealing exchange on May 1, 2019, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA, California-Hasting, '89) asked Barr if "the president or anyone at the White House ever asked or suggested that you open an investigation of anyone."

Barr stuttered, stammered, and asked her to repeat the question.

"It seems you'd remember something like that and be able to tell us," she pressed.

"I'm trying to grapple with the word 'suggest,'" Barr said. "I mean there have been discussions of, of matters out there, that, uh, they've not asked me to open an investigation."

"Perhaps they suggested?" Harris offered.

"I don't know. I wouldn't say 'suggest'," Barr hesitated.

"Hinted?" she continued.

"I don't know," he replied.

"Inferred?"

Barr didn't answer.

"You don't know," Harris said.

"No," Barr mumbled.

Delegitimizing the Investigators

Sen. Harris might have sensed where Trump and Barr were heading. Unable to erase the proof that Mueller had found, they focused on undermining the investigation itself as illegitimate and attacking the investigators as "corrupt."

Immediately after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey in May 2017, acting Director Andrew McCabe (JD, Washington Univ. – St. Louis, '93) authorized the Trump-Russia counterintelligence probe. Two years later, McCabe became a poster child for Trump and Barr's abuse of power. Even prior to Barr's appointment, a team of prosecutors had investigated whether McCabe had lied to investigators about improper media leaks concerning an FBI investigation into the Clinton Foundation. Those prosecutors concluded that they could not win a conviction, so Trump's chosen US attorney for the District of Columbia, Jessie Liu (JD, Yale, '98), brought in another team to go after McCabe.For months, Liu's office asked the judge handling the matter — U.S. District Court Judge Reggie Walton once again — for more time. By then, Barr was the attorney general. In a closed-door session on Sept. 30, 2019, Walton warned prosecutors to stop stringing McCabe along:

"I don't think people like the fact that you got somebody at the top basically trying to dictate whether somebody should be prosecuted. I just think it's a banana republic when we go down that road…"

Judge Walton added, "I just think the integrity of the process is being unduly undermined by inappropriate comments and actions by people at the top of our government. I think it's very unfortunate. And I think as a government and as a society we're going to pay a price at some point for this." (9/30/2019 Tr., p. 5)

Eventually, the case against McCabe fell apart again and a grand jury refused to indict him. But for months, Barr left McCabe twisting in the wind of legal uncertainty. Once again, defenders of the rule of law rose to the challenge. The Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) won a court order requiring the release of the devastating Sept. 30 transcript of Judge Walton's earlier comments. On Feb. 14, 2020 — the day that transcript became public — the Justice Department finally informed McCabe that he would not face charges.

As Barr's efforts to investigate the investigators failed to produce Trump's desired outcome, he assigned new teams to keep trying. For example, Mueller had concluded that the FBI had opened its Trump-Russia investigation appropriately in late July 2016. (Mueller Rep., Vol. I, pp. 88-89, fn. 465) Despite knowing Mueller and claiming to respect him as a friend and colleague for years, Barr appointed U.S. Attorney John Durham (JD, Connecticut, '75) to second-guess that finding. Barr also asked foreign leaders in the United Kingdom and Italy for help in gathering information that Trump hoped would discredit Mueller's work. Trump personally made such a request of the Australian prime minister.

Likewise, in December 2019, the Justice Department's inspector general, Michael Horowitz (JD, Harvard, '87), completed an 18-month investigation into the origins of the Trump-Russia investigation. Although his 400-page report found that the FBI had adequate reasons for opening the probe, Barr nevertheless asserted that the FBI's reasons were insufficient and publicly attacked Horowitz's conclusion.

Undermining the Convictions

Finally, beyond using the power of his office to pursue Trump's perceived enemies, Barr has deployed the Justice Department to help Trump's convicted friends. It was the final step in wiping the Russia investigation from the history books altogether. But Barr's manipulations also have profound implications for the rule of law.

When Mueller closed up shop in 2019, then-U.S. Attorney Liu (whose office supervised the McCabe investigation) assumed control of several special counsel prosecutions and earlier referrals, including cases against Roger Stone and Mike Flynn. But after Liu failed to get McCabe indicted, Barr replaced her with his old friend and confidant, Timothy Shea (JD, Georgetown '91) — just as the Justice Department was finalizing its sentencing recommendation in Stone's case.

In 2017, Stone had lied to the House Intelligence Committee about his role concerning Trump campaign contacts with Russia. Then he threatened a witness who was going to expose him. A jury deliberated for about seven hours before convicting Stone on all seven counts of lying to Congress and witness tampering.

As Shea replaced Liu in the District of Columbia U.S. attorney's office, career prosecutors handling Stone's case filed a brief that followed federal sentencing guidelines recommending seven to nine years in prison. Immediately, Trump tweeted that Stone's plight was "horrible," "unfair," and a "miscarriage of justice." Hours later, an official at Justice Department headquarters said that the DC office's recommendation was "extreme" and "excessive" and that a new memorandum would outline the government's revised position.

Defending the rule of law, four of the federal prosecutors who signed the sentencing memorandum resigned immediately from the case. Jonathan Kravis (Yale, JD, '04) — one of Stone's prosecutors at trial — resigned from the Justice Department altogether. That left Shea and his assistant who was newly assigned to the Stone case to file a revised memorandum asserting that the government's previously recommended sentence "could be considered excessive and unwarranted."

The following day, Trump congratulated Barr for "taking charge" of the Stone case, "which perhaps should not even been brought."

Defenders of the rule of law fought back. Appearing on national television, the former chief of the criminal fraud section of the Justice Department, Andrew Weissmann (JD, Columbia, '84) — an appointee of President George H. W. Bush — said he could think of no instance where he had even heard of the attorney general reaching into a single criminal case to weigh in on a sentencing submission. Former Attorney General Eric Holder (JD, Columbia, '76) called Barr's direct intervention "unprecedented, wrong, and ultimately dangerous."

"Public confusion was the objective, because it led to public indifference"

The most damning criticism came from Donald Ayer (JD, Harvard, '75), who had served as President George H. W. Bush's deputy attorney general and Barr's boss at one point. On Feb. 17, 2020, Ayer wrote in The Atlantic:

"All of this conduct — including Barr's personal interventions to influence or negate independent investigations or the pursuit of criminal cases, and his use of the department's resources to frustrate the checks and balances provided by other branches — is incompatible with the rule of law as we know it…"

Ayer concluded: "Bill Barr's America is not a place that anyone, including Trump voters, should want to go. It is a banana republic where all are subject to the whims of a dictatorial president and his henchmen. To prevent that, we need a public uprising demanding that Bill Barr resign immediately, or failing that, be impeached."

Trump and Barr were undeterred. Trump attacked Stone's judge, Amy Berman Jackson (JD, Harvard, JD '79), calling her "the Judge that put Paul Manafort in SOLITARY CONFINEMENT, something that not even mobster Al Capone had to endure." That was another Trump lie. Prison officials had made the decision about Manafort's federal housing. But Barr did not defend Jackson against Trump's attack, and the Judicial Code of Conduct prevented her from defending herself.

Instead, Barr gave an interview during which he sent Trump a message — the tweets were making it "impossible" for him to do his job. Since then, Barr's view of his job has become even clearer: obliterate all trace of the Russia investigation. Mike Flynn became a stunning example of Barr's methods.

Moving to Drop Charges After a Guilty Plea

On Dec. 1, 2017, Flynn pled guilty to lying to the FBI about his conversations with the Russian ambassador during the presidential transition and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. On Dec. 18, 2018, he again acknowledged his crimes in open court. Judge Emmett G. Sullivan (JD, Howard Univ., '71) did not hide his disgust.

"[Y]ou lied to the FBI about three different topics, and you made those false statements while you were serving as the national security advisor, the President of the United States' most senior national security aid. I can't minimize that," the judge said. "Two months later you again made false statements in multiple documents filed pursuant to the Foreign Agents Registration Act. So, all along you were an unregistered agent of a foreign country, while serving as the national security advisor to the President of the United States. I mean, arguably, that undermines everything this flag over here stands for. Arguably, you sold your country out."

But after Barr became attorney general two months later, he appointed the U.S. attorney in St. Louis, Jeff Jensen (JD, St. Louis Univ., '98), to review Flynn's case. In June 2019, Flynn retained new a lawyer — Sidney Powell (JD, North Carolina, '78), a far-right conspiracy theorist. Powell wrote directly to Barr, urging him to conduct an internal review and throw out Flynn's conviction. A week later, Trump congratulated Flynn for retaining Powell, tweeting that she was a "GREAT LAWYER."

Shortly before the July 2019 trial at which Flynn was supposed to be a cooperating witness against his former business associate, he suddenly became uncooperative and prosecutors did not call him to testify. Powell then asked Judge Sullivan to nullify Flynn's conviction on the grounds that prosecutors had engaged in misconduct — claims that the judge rejected. As Flynn's sentencing approached in early January 2020, prosecutors withdrew their earlier recommendation of probation and urged Flynn's incarceration for as long as six months.

As with Roger Stone, things then changed abruptly and mysteriously in Flynn's favor. And as with Stone, Barr and his confidant, interim US Attorney for the District of Columbia Timothy Shea, made it happen. On May 7, Shea's office took the unprecedented step of moving to drop all charges against Flynn. Shea alone signed the motion with no line prosecutors joining. It included no affidavits or declarations supporting its many new factual allegations. No motion to vacate the government's prior, contrary filings and representations accompanied the filing.

The defenders of the rule of law stepped forward again. One of Flynn's prosecutors withdrew from the case and Judge Sullivan invited amicus briefs on the unusual motion. Then he assigned a former federal judge to oppose the Justice Department's move and to determine whether Flynn should be found in criminal contempt for lying to the court when he had pled guilty — twice.

Flynn's attorney sought a writ of mandamus in the District of Columbia circuit court of appeals. That, in turn, forced Judge Sullivan to hire an attorney, Beth Wilkinson (JD, Virginia, '87), to answer the mandamus petition. The circle was complete: A judge defending the rule of law now needed his own lawyer to defend himself.

In her brief on Judge Sullivan's behalf, Wilkinson wrote, "It is unprecedented for an Acting U.S. Attorney to contradict the solemn representations that career prosecutors made time and again, and undermine the district court's legal and factual findings, in moving on his own to dismiss the charge years after two different federal judges accepted the defendant's plea."

What began in March 2019 with Barr's false spin and outright lies to assuage a president's obsession with the Russia investigation had exploded into a multidimensional assault on the rule of law itself. No limiting principle has guided Barr's abuses, but he has encountered resistance. Individually and together, attorneys — especially litigators — have stepped forward:

More than 1,000 former federal prosecutors from Republican and Democratic administrations signed an open letter stating that, but for the fact that Trump was a sitting president, Mueller's proof would have led to Trump's indictment for obstruction of justice.

In connection with Roger Stone's sentencing, more than 2,600 former prosecutors and other DOJ attorneys from Republican and Democratic administrations signed an open letter condemning Barr for "interference in the fair administration of justice," "openly and repeatedly flouting" the fundamental principle of "equal justice under law," and calling on Barr to resign. They wrote, "Governments that use the enormous power of law enforcement to punish their enemies and reward their allies are not constitutional republics; they are autocracies."

The president of the New York State Bar Ass'n issued a statement saying, "The intervention by senior Department of Justice officials in the sentencing of Roger Stone is an assault on a bedrock principle of the rule of law — the apolitical administration of justice. Our nation was founded on the principle that everyone must be treated equally in the eyes of the law…"

More than 2,000 former Justice Department officials from Republican and Democratic administrations signed an open letter stating that Barr had "once again assaulted the rule of law" in seeking the dismissal of Flynn's case. "Attorney General Barr's repeated actions to use the Department as a tool to further President Trump's personal and political interests have undermined any claim to the deference that courts usually apply to the Department's decisions about whether or not to prosecute a case," they wrote.

Judge Sullivan and the appeals court received numerous amicus briefs supporting the district court's exercise of judgment when deciding whether to accept the government's motion to dismiss the federal criminal charges against Flynn. Filings in support of the judge came from former federal judges, former Watergate prosecutors, legal scholars, and the New York City Bar Ass'n.

ABA President Judy Perry Martinez issued a statement declaring, "Public officials who personally attack judges or prosecutors can create a perception that the system is serving a political or other purpose rather than the fair administration of justice. It is incumbent upon public officials and members of the legal profession, whose sworn duty it is to uphold the law, to do everything in their power to preserve the integrity of the justice system."

What's next? Federal judges enjoy lifetime tenure that prevents Trump from purging the bench of his perceived judicial enemies. But Trump and his key Senate enabler with a law degree, Sen. Mitch McConnell (JD, Kentucky, '67), have boasted about filling federal judgeships at a brisk pace. Those judges must demonstrate their independence. With their actions, they have a unique opportunity to reaffirm that "equal justice under law" and "no one is above the law" are not empty platitudes, but guiding principles of our democracy.

Pundits often understate Barr's conduct as violating "norms." It is more accurate to say that he and Trump are at war with the rule of law. Federal judges and litigators throughout the country have become first-responders in the fight. The front lines have formed in courtrooms throughout the country, but lawyers away from the immediate field of battle are also making a difference.

So which side are you on?

In this war, there are no bystanders.

This article appears in the Fall 2020 issue of Litigation – The Journal of the Section of Litigation of the American Bar Association.

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