Donald Trump’s attacks on Pete Buttigieg have so far focused on his unusual name and his alleged resemblance to Mad magazine mascot Alfred E Neumann – a slightly outdated reference the young Democrat humorously said he “had to Google”.
But there has been speculation about whether Trump – or his allies – will eventually attempt to make an issue of Buttigieg’s sexuality if the former South Bend mayor continues his run of strong primary showings.
Yesterday Rush Limbaugh – the rightwing talk-show host honoured by Trump with the Presidential Medal of Freedom last week, gave a taste of what that might look like, speculating that Democrats were worried about “how’s this going to look? Thirty-seven-year-old gay guy kissing his husband on stage, next to Mr. Man, Donald Trump.’”
Joe Biden – one of the 38-year-old Buttigieg’s main centrist competitors – sprang to his defence. “Pete and I are competitors, but this guy has honor, he has courage, he is smart as hell.”
Sebastian Gorka, another Trump ally, also made an issue of Buttigieg’s sexuality on his own talk show. “Why is a homosexual man lecturing us about the sanctity of life in the womb? Just a little curious there. Strange, strange,” Gorka said of Buttigieg’s views on abortion. “I thought you’re supposed to stay in your lane as a leftist. You can’t comment on the lived experience of the other.”
Trump himself, however, was asked about whether Americans would vote for a gay man as president on Cleveland’s Newsradio WTAM yesterday. “I think so,” he said. “I think there would be some that wouldn’t. I wouldn’t be among that group, to be honest with you.”
Two leading Republican voices came out in favour of Barr in the dispute yesterday, with Senator Mitch McConnell, the party’s leader in the Senate, saying: “If the attorney general says it’s getting in the way of doing his job, maybe the president should listen.”
Lindsey Graham, a close Trump ally who was scathing about the impeachment trial against the president, said Barr was “the right man at the right time to reform the department and stand up for the rule of law”.
Perhaps more significant in terms of influencing Trump’s response was feedback from his favourite TV channel, Fox News.
Sean Hannity put a brave face on the dispute, stressing to viewers that Barr had said Trump had not discussed Stone’s sentencing with him. “In fact, the attorney general, he takes orders from no one,” Hannity said. “And by the way, he shouldn’t. He needs to remain independent.”
But Lou Dobbs – another favourite of the president’s – was openly critical – not just angry, but disappointed too.
“I guess I am so disappointed in Bill Barr,” he said, adding: “It’s a damn shame when he doesn’t get what this president has gone through, and what the American people have gone through, and what his charge is as attorney general.”
To hear this attorney general complain about this president, who is fighting every one of those damn people to do the right thing and get this country straightened out and it’s mission to do so and not to carp about his boss.
And, by the way, I don’t want to hear any crap about an independent Justice Department. This Justice Department, as does everyone, works for the president. It’s part of the executive branch.
Conventional legal opinion holds that the justice department should be independent from White House pressure.
US attorney general William Barr made an unexpected intervention into the ballooning controversy over Donald Trump’s interference in the trial of his friend Roger Stone.
Barr – seen as a staunch Trump loyalist – publicly rebuked the president, saying that Trump’s tweets about the Stone case “make it impossible for me to do my job” and adding that he would not be “bullied or influenced” over justice department decisions.
“I think it’s time to stop the tweeting about Department of Justice criminal cases,” Barr told ABC.
The attorney general claimed Trump “has never asked me to do anything in a criminal case”, but he acknowledged the president’s comments undercut his authority.
The initial reaction from the White House was relatively calm. Press secretary Stephanie Grisham said the president “wasn’t bothered” by Barr’s comments, adding: “[Barr] has the right, just like any American citizen, to publicly offer his opinions. President Trump uses social media very effectively to fight for the American people against injustices in our country.”
Whether that line holds when Trump gets up this morning and begins his effective use of social media for the day remains to be seen. The president has a low tolerance for criticism, whether from friends or enemies – as former chief of staff John Kelly saw yesterday.
Barr’s motivations are also in question. He has been called to testify to Congress about alleged political interference at the justice department, and may be preparing the groundwork for that. He may also be attempting to save his reputation – which has been shredded since he joined the Trump administration last year, particularly after his handling of the Mueller report.
Barr characterized the report in ways that appeared to absolve Trump of wrongdoing on numerous occasions, even though the redacted version of the Mueller report released in April 2019 showed nearly a dozen instances in which the president or his campaign sought to obstruct justice.
The attorney general had been contemplating how to respond since he became aware of Mr. Trump’s attacks on the department, according to a person familiar with his thinking. Speaking up could have put Mr. Barr at risk of losing the backing of the president, but remaining silent would have permitted Mr. Trump to continue attacking law enforcement and all but invited open revolt among the some 115,000 employees of the Justice Department.
Ultimately, Mr. Barr concluded that he had to speak out to preserve his ability to do his job effectively, the person said … The attorney general had let the president know some of what he planned to say and is remaining in his job, a person familiar with the events said.
The attorney general’s rebuke comes amid an intensifying fallout over the Stone case, after the justice department overruled its own prosecutors who had recommended that Stone, a longtime Trump ally and confidant, be sentenced to seven to nine years in prison. The four prosecutors on the case subsequently resigned in protest. Stone is due to be sentenced on 20 February.
We’ll cover the continuing fallout from this and all US political news here throughout the day.
Trump is heading to Mar-a-Lago after his meetings today, while the Democratic candidates competing to take him on in November continue to campaign across the country. Bernie Sanders will be in North Carolina and Texas; Pete Buttigieg in Nevada and California; and Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar and Tom Steyer in Nevada.
Oh, and by the way: