President Trump’s appalling declaration that he’d welcome help from another foreign attack on our political system has renewed attention to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s ongoing blockade against allowing any election security legislation to move forward.
But it should also renew scrutiny of the role that Attorney General William P. Barr is playing in this whole sordid affair. In this new context, Barr’s ongoing effort to investigate the roots of the Russia investigation — as Trump has long demanded — takes on a potentially more sinister cast.
That’s because, if Barr is trying to discredit the legitimacy of the Russia probe — and the validity of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s conclusion that the Russia effort was sweeping and designed to elect Trump — that could end up having more damaging consequences, given that Trump has now in effect invited another Russian attack.
In an interview with me, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, pointed out that the message Trump has now sent to Russia — effectively greenlighting another assault on his behalf — is also bolstered by the fact that “he’s putting his own intelligence agencies under investigation.”
Trump told ABC News that he might not call the FBI if his campaign were offered help again by a foreign power, and that there would be nothing wrong with accepting information on that basis.
In other words, Trump has now suggested he will not alert law enforcement agencies about such an offer of help, even as his attorney general appears to be simultaneously working to discredit law enforcement’s findings about the last Russian attack, thus absolving Russia of that effort even as Trump invites a new one.
“Barr’s sole objective as attorney general when it comes to foreign interference in our election is to inoculate the president, by investigating his critics,” Schiff told me, and “by investigating the law enforcement agencies who had the temerity to do their jobs and protect the country against an unscrupulous campaign that was accepting foreign help.”
At the same time, Schiff argued, Trump has sent Russian President Vladimir Putin a clear message that Russia should feel free to interfere in our elections again on his behalf.
“He’s basically telling the Russian dictator that, if you want to intervene in our election again, as long as you do it to help my campaign, I will never call you out on it,” Schiff told me. “The president has no allegiance except to his own self interest.”
Investigating the investigation of the investigators
Schiff told me the Intelligence Committee would play an active role in monitoring Barr’s investigation into the roots of the Russia probe. Barr has suggested that “spying” occurred, tacitly legitimizing the idea that intelligence officials undertook the investigation into Russian interference to damage Trump’s candidacy.
“We are going to want to be informed of any information that the administration seeks from the intelligence agencies, any concerns they have over disclosure of sources or methods,” Schiff said, adding that the committee would try to ensure “that information is not misleadingly declassified.”
Underscoring these concerns, the New York Times reports that Barr’s inquiry seems aimed at questioning whether it was valid for intelligence officials to conclude that Russia interfered in the election for the purpose of helping Trump, and not just to sow discord generally.
In short, Barr may be trying to discredit conclusions about Russia’s motivation to help Trump win — never mind that Mueller extensively documented this — even as Trump has now said he’d welcome more interference on his behalf.
“I think what the attorney general has in mind is doing his own version of the Nunes memorandum, where he will selectively declassify information to give a false or fraudulent picture of what took place, in order to help the president,” Schiff continued.
However, when I asked Schiff whether the committee might be able to counter any such effort with a fact set of its own, Schiff conceded the Justice Department would likely “make that extremely difficult for us.”
Still, Schiff said the committee would do “everything within our power to protect the intelligence community from interference and denigration simply to bolster an unethical president.”
What happened to the counterintelligence probe?
Schiff also argued that Trump’s new declaration renews the urgency of getting an answer to a big, unanswered question: What has become of the original counterintelligence investigation into potential links between Trump’s campaign and Russia?
That investigation is distinct from the criminal investigation Mueller has concluded — it involves counterintelligence concerns, not criminal ones — and Mueller’s report said little about it. Schiff has demanded the FBI shed light on it, and gotten few answers.
“What happened to the investigation?” Schiff asked. “Is it still ongoing? If it’s still ongoing, as to whom? If it’s been closed, on what basis? We still don’t have answers to those very basic questions.”
Schiff pointed out that Trump’s new invitation to Russia makes answering those questions more urgent.
“If the president and the people around him are still willing to countenance foreign interference in our election, that’s a deep counterintelligence risk,” Schiff said. “It indicates that the marching orders from the president on down are designed to bolster his campaign, and not protect the country from foreign interference.”
To be fair, it’s hard to predict what Barr will conclude about the roots of the Russia investigation, though it appears plausible he will selectively present information to help Trump, by discrediting the conclusion that Russia’s goal was to install him in the White House. Meanwhile, Trump is telling the Russians that he’d be fine with a rerun.
As Schiff put it: “The Russians listen to every word the president says.”