As you’ve heard, on Wednesday morning, Attorney General William P. Barr made the remarkable claim that the Trump campaign might have been the target of “spying” by law enforcement during the 2016 campaign.
“I think spying on a political campaign is a big deal,” Barr said, adding when pressed: “I think spying did occur, yes."
Barr did say the core question is whether that spying was justified, and said it might have been. But this nonetheless counters what intelligence officials have said, which is that they did undertake a counterintelligence investigation into Russian interference and potential Trump campaign conspiracy with it during the campaign — but that no spying occurred.
Indeed, Barr even said the Justice Department would be examining the genesis of the Russia probe. While Barr did clarify that this wouldn’t be an “investigation of the FBI” and subsequently walked back the spying claim a bit, he also said there was “probably a failure among a group of leaders there in the upper echelon,” which, remarkably, seems like he’s largely made up his mind on this question already.
Taken altogether, at a minimum, Barr generally ratified a view of the Russia investigation that will make President Trump very pleased with his new attorney general.
In an interview, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, suggested that this claim is nothing short of alarming.
“I’m shocked to hear the attorney general of the United States casually make the suggestion that the FBI or intelligence community was spying on the president’s campaign,” Schiff told me. “I’m sure it was very gratifying to Donald Trump.”
It’s unclear what “spying" Barr was pointing to, beyond the fact that law enforcement did undertake an investigation of Russian interference and possible conspiracy with it. Trump has made many extremely lurid variations of the same claim, including suggesting that President Barack Obama ordered his phone tapped.
Schiff pointed out that the bipartisan Gang of Eight — the leaders and intelligence committee chairs in both parties — were already briefed by the Justice Department after Trump made yet another version of the assertion. At the time, the Democrats issued a joint statement saying nothing they had been told supported the notion of untoward conduct.
“It’s unclear to me what Barr was referring to,” Schiff said. He noted that he was unaware that the statement he and other Democrats put out had ever been “contested by anyone on either side of the aisle.”
“All I can make of it is that he wanted to say something pleasing to the boss, and did so at the cost of our institutions," Schiff said.
Asked if Schiff would seek another briefing from the Justice Department on Barr’s latest claim, Schiff said: “We’ll certainly try to get to the bottom of many of the things he has been saying over the last two days — his references to investigation into the president’s political opponents.”
“His testimony raises profound concern that the attorney general is doing what we urge emerging democracies not to do, and that is, seek to prosecute your political opponents after you win an election,” Schiff continued, in an apparent reference to Barr’s vow to examine the beginnings of the investigation, precisely as Trump has long demanded.
This could presumably include figures such as former FBI director James B. Comey, who has emerged as a leading Trump critic. (In this context, recall that Barr had previously said the fake Uranium One Hillary Clinton scandal was more worthy of investigation than collusion with Russia was.)
“The big picture is this,” Schiff said. “The post-Watergate reforms are being dismantled, one by one. The Trump precedent after only two years is that you can fire the FBI director who is running an investigation in which you may be implicated as president.”
“You can hire an attorney general who has applied for the job by telling you why he thinks the case against you is bogus," Schiff continued. "That new attorney general can then selectively edit the work of an independent or special prosecutor, and allow the Congress and the public to see only parts of it. And that new attorney general can also initiate inquiries into the president’s political opponents.”
That reference to selective editing, of course, concerns special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report, which Barr has pledged to release within a week, but with some redactions, and without turning over the full report to Congress. Since Barr released his four-page summary exonerating Trump, some on Mueller’s team have claimed he played down the seriousness of their findings.
Some have pointed out that Barr is undertaking those redactions with Mueller’s input, and that this should alleviate concerns. I asked Schiff whether that was a fair argument.
“It’s very hard to tell what [Mueller’s] role is,” Schiff argued. “If Barr tells him to redact anything vis-a-vis people who have not been indicted, then I’m sure that’s what Bob Mueller will do. If he instructs him to redact anything that was produced to the grand jury, then I’m sure he’ll do that. It really depends on the marching orders that Bob Mueller is given.”
I asked Schiff whether one can envision a less alarmist scenario, in which Barr redacts less than we expect (he has vowed not to undertake any redactions to protect Trump) and the Gang of Eight gets the full report.
“It’s entirely possible that Barr will surprise us by redacting very little,” Schiff conceded. “It doesn’t seem like he is headed that way.”