Attorney General William P. Barr wants to be certain the Justice Department and the FBI acted lawfully and appropriately in the initial stages of the Russia investigation. What could be wrong with that?
In principle, nothing. Moreover, Barr has picked a well-respected career prosecutor, John H. Durham, the U.S. attorney for the District of Connecticut, to undertake the inquiry. Durham previously looked into similarly controversial department actions for Janet Reno and Eric Holder.
But in context, Barr’s decision raises multiple concerns — and, in this case, context is everything.
First and inevitably, Barr in taking this action has provided a political boost to President Trump, who is eager to make the mantra of “investigate the investigators” a centerpiece of his reelection campaign.
To nobody’s surprise, Trump greeted the news of Durham’s appointment with self-satisfied glee, crowing, “I think it’s great a thing that he did it. … I am so proud of our attorney general.” The president used the opportunity to reassert that the Russia investigation “was the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the people of this country.”
Unless Durham makes extremely quick work of his new mission — and he is known for professionalism but not for dispatch — Trump will be able to use the talking point of “the Attorney General is investigating the investigators” well into his reelection campaign.
Second, this political dividend to Trump comes at the direct cost to the former FBI officials whom the president already has spent two years unfairly demonizing. One of the bitterest disappointments of Barr’s short time in office has been his failure to stand up for the employees and institutional values of the Justice Department. And here again, in delighting the president –– whether or not that was his intent — Barr has further darkened the cloud over the heads of previously well-respected officials.
Third, Durham’s inquiry is the third, or arguably fourth, separate investigation of the origins of the Russia probe. The department’s inspector general already completed a report in which he (in my view, unfairly) excoriated former deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe. He is now well into a comprehensive report on the topic. On top of that, for 18 months, Utah U.S. attorney John Huber has been investigating allegations of FBI misconduct in the probe’s early days (though not aggressively enough for the tastes of Republicans on the Hill) on an assignment from former attorney general Jeff Sessions.
With the ground so well plowed, the question arises: Exactly what facts does Barr think remain to be investigated? And why not just wait for the inspector general’s report? Indeed, the basic charges against the bureau have been repeated ad nauseam on Fox News and in Congress. Moreover, and this feels almost beside the point, they are spurious: The initial investigation was extremely well predicated; the process was subject to many levels of review and did not depend on the decisions of supervisors; the Steele dossier was not what started the investigation; and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) application was approved and then renewed three times.
Finally, the repeated, relentless focus on the same personnel risks signaling all too clearly just where the president and the attorney general want Durham to end up — again, even if that wasn’t Barr’s intention. That message? This investigation of the investigators must go on until somebody gets it right by providing the damning verdict the president so ardently desires.
Barr would do well to take heed of the words of three previous respected attorneys general — Edward H. Levi, Griffin Bell and William French Smith — who submitted an amicus brief in the Morrison v. Olson independent counsel case warning of ”the danger of too narrow a focus, of the loss of perspective, of preoccupation with the pursuit of one alleged suspect to the exclusion of other interests.”
In making Trump’s preoccupation his own, Barr has again made symbiosis with the president the defining trait of his tenure. For reasons that seem hard to fathom, he has yoked his reputation to Trump. All in all, the attorney general is rapidly squandering the presumption of professionalism and good faith he brought to the job, ensuring that otherwise routine decisions provoke widespread suspicion. He is losing the benefit of our doubt, and possibly history’s, as well.