One of the most revealing things President Trump ever said was his complaint last year that “I don’t have an attorney general.” This wasn’t because Jeff Sessions was failing to come to work every day, but rather because he had recused himself from the Russia investigation. Had Trump known that Sessions would not oversee that investigation and thus protect him from it, the president said, “I would have quickly picked someone else.”
Because after all, what higher duty could the attorney general of the United States have than to do the president’s personal bidding?
Well now Trump has his attorney general, William P. Barr. As we learned in his Tuesday congressional testimony, Barr will do everything in his power to make sure as little as possible of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report on the Russia scandal reaches the public’s eyes.
And now Barr will be using the power of his office to accommodate the president, Fox News bloviators and every right-wing Internet troll in their fevered fantasies of a deep state anti-Trump conspiracy:
Attorney General William Barr has assembled a team to review controversial counterintelligence decisions made by Justice Department and FBI officials, including actions taken during the probe of the Trump campaign in the summer of 2016, according to a person familiar with the matter.
This indicates that Barr is looking into allegations that Republican lawmakers have been pursuing for more than a year — that the investigation into President Donald Trump and possible collusion with Russia was tainted at the start by anti-Trump bias in the FBI and Justice Department.
In testimony Wednesday, Barr even said: “I think spying on a political campaign is a big deal.” This echoes one of the more preposterous descriptions Trump and his advocates have used for the counterintelligence investigation. So let’s make sure we understand what’s “controversial” about that investigation.
As we now know, in 2016, Russia mounted a comprehensive effort to help get Trump elected president of the United States. That effort included social media propagandizing, outreach to Trump campaign officials and the hacking of Democratic emails.
The FBI began its counterintelligence investigation in the early summer of 2016 when it was alerted that a Trump campaign adviser had bragged that Russia had in its possession stolen Clinton emails that could be used to embarrass her.
That investigation confronted two broad questions: What was the nature of Russian meddling in the U.S. election, and was the Trump campaign involved? We can argue about how to interpret everything the investigation eventually uncovered. But the Republican position — and we have to be clear about this, because it’s utterly bonkers — has in effect been that there should never have been any FBI investigation at all into the Russian attack on the U.S. election.
A more sane group of people would say that while of course Russia’s attack on our electoral system was important to investigate, that investigation hasn’t shown criminality by the president and his associates (well, apart from the crimes Mueller found by members of Trump’s inner circle), so in the end, they were vindicated, sort of. We could argue about that conclusion, too, but that’s not the position Republicans are taking. They’re saying the entire investigation was illegitimate from the get-go.
A less ludicrous position might be that though the investigation was legitimate, the particular way it was carried out was problematic. Republicans make arguments on this score as well, but they’re not much more tethered to reality. Their theory is that there was a vast and ruthless conspiracy within the Justice Department and specifically the FBI — just for the record, probably the most politically conservative agency in the entire federal government — to destroy Trump.
The problem is that there is no genuine evidence that any actions anyone took in the course of the investigation displayed improper anti-Trump bias. Peter Strzok? Nope. Strzok, who had a key role in the counterintelligence investigation of Russian meddling, exchanged text messages in which he disparaged Trump, in what must surely have been the first case in history in which an investigator held one of his targets in low esteem.
Those texts were publicly released by the Justice Department, which is why we know they exist. What we don’t have, for instance, are text messages exchanged by the FBI agents in the New York office who were reportedly consumed with their hatred of Hillary Clinton, because they were not released.
But having established that someone working on the Russia investigation disliked Trump, Republicans spun out a story of a vast conspiracy to destroy the future president running through the government. The only trouble was that they could never find any evidence that such a conspiracy existed.
Most glaring of all, this supposed anti-Trump conspiracy declined to take any action that would have prevented Trump from becoming president. As Strzok himself said in congressional testimony, he possessed “information [that] had the potential to derail, and quite possibly, defeat Mr. Trump. But the thought of exposing that information never crossed my mind.” Republicans have never explained why their imagined anti-Trump conspiracy failed to do the one thing that would have accomplished its supposed goal.
But now, the attorney general has given the president and his superfans on Fox News and in Congress what they wanted: an official probe into the Russia investigation, to see if there was malfeasance that hasn’t yet been discovered. “That’s something that has been really important to us. It’s what we’ve been calling for,” said Freedom Caucus outrage artist Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio).
I suppose it’s possible that Barr’s team will find that the conspiracy is real, and we’ll all be astonished. But it’s much more likely that they’ll take what we already know and package it into a tale full of supposition, conjecture and dark insinuations. Their conclusions will be trumpeted for days on Fox. “Shocking revelations about the deep state conspiracy!” Sean Hannity will shout. The president will tweet that every allegation he has ever made about the nefarious FBI has been proven true. Congressional Republicans will demand that the Justice Department be purged of anyone unwilling to declare their eternal loyalty to Trump.
And the president will nod in satisfaction and say, “Now I have an attorney general!”