President Trump is openly telegraphing that he fully expects his attorney general to validate one of his biggest lies: that the real crime in 2016 wasn’t Russia’s sabotaging of our election but rather the decision by law enforcement to investigate it.
New public comments from William P. Barr provide Trump with ample grounds for being confident that Barr will deliver for him.
But Barr’s latest claims about the Russia investigation rest on a serious misrepresentation that has not gotten the focus it deserves — and is more pernicious than it first appears.
In a much-discussed interview with NBC News, Barr criticized the Department of Justice’s inspector general for concluding that the FBI’s launch of an investigation into Russian interference — and potential Trump campaign coordination with it — had a legitimate basis.
Barr’s full interview is now online, and it’s worse than you thought. It whitewashes away a crucial aspect of the I.G.’s conclusions in a way that’s easy to overlook but serves Trump’s political needs in deeply disingenuous fashion.
One key argument Barr makes is that the FBI’s decision to launch that investigation had a “very flimsy” basis that lacked “sufficient predication.”
Barr casts this as rooted in deeply held pro-democracy principles. He claims “the incumbent government used the apparatus of the state” to “spy on political opponents,” in a way that could have affected “the outcome of the election” and thus posed a “danger to our free system.”
Barr claims there was never any serious evidence of “collusion” and excoriates the FBI for having an inadequate basis for launching the investigation, given the “very potent powers” the FBI has at its disposal. “At the end of the day,” he asks, “is what you’re relying on sufficiently powerful to justify the techniques you’re using?”
And Barr insists the inspector general’s analysis of this was “very limited,” vowing that his own forthcoming review would take a much more thorough look at the investigation’s genesis.
Barr’s deceptive whitewash
In saying those things, Barr is rewriting the story of 2016 in a subtle but consequential way. He’s implying that the FBI’s initial investigation was only motivated by what it had learned about the Trump campaign’s intentions with regard to coordinating with Russia’s electoral subversion effort.
But Barr is leaving out crucial facts and context. In fact, when the FBI launched this investigation, it had already developed an awareness that Russia was undertaking this attack on U.S. democracy — separate and apart from any Trump campaign involvement with it. This was a critical reason the FBI launched its investigation.
The inspector general’s report is very clear and emphatic on this point. As it recounts, at the time the FBI opened the probe in July 2016, it was already aware of extensive efforts by Russia to influence the election.
This didn’t just include an FBI awareness of extensive Russian efforts to hack into Democratic computer systems. As the I.G. notes, it also involved “numerous attempts to hack into state election systems,” including “confirmed access into elements of multiple state or local electoral boards.”
“It was in this context” that the FBI launched its investigation, the I.G. reports, when the FBI learned that a Trump campaign adviser had revealed he’d learned that Russia possessed dirt on Hillary Clinton.
As the decision was intensively debated among top intelligence officials, the I.G. notes, what was already known about the Russian attack was critical. Officials told the I.G. that the new information about the Trump campaign precipitated the investigation, but only on top of the fact that Russia was already “targeting U.S. political institutions” and trying to manipulate the “U.S. democratic process.”
This context, the I.G. concludes, helped provide the FBI with the “legitimate law enforcement purpose” of protecting against “a national security threat or federal crime.”
This is entirely elided by Barr. He casts the decision as one only motivated by supposedly flimsy evidence of potential Trump collusion and not by the perception of a serious national security threat, a crucial motivator.
This perception, of course, turned out to be absolutely correct: The special counsel documented an extensive Russian attack that included massive cybertheft that badly disrupted the activities of a major U.S. political party, and extensive disinformation warfare designed to sow discord and divide the country.
Incredibly, Barr allows that the Russians “attempted” to interfere — as if they didn’t succeed.
Barr’s cynicism helps Trump
It’s galling in the extreme that Barr would piously claim concern for preserving the sanctity of our elections while hand-waving away the massive outside disruption effort as a central reason the investigation was legitimately launched.
This also serves numerous Trump political purposes. It helps Trump make the fact of that Russian attack disappear — and by extension the betrayal of our country his campaign engaged in when it did actively work to coordinate with and benefit from it.
This has been a central Trump goal for years: Son-in-law Jared Kushner dismissed the Russian effort as “a couple of Facebook ads,” and campaign manager Brad Parscale insisted Russia “never” helped Trump.
In fact, this was a serious and disruptive attack on our democratic processes and on liberal democracy itself. Barr is helping make all that go poof.
This also serves to downplay the threat of another outside attack and Trump’s eagerness to benefit from that, too, which he has openly telegraphed. And anything that obscures that eagerness helps Trump dodge accountability for his use of his office to extort another foreign power into helping rig the next election, for which he’s being impeached.
All this can coexist with an acknowledgment that the I.G. did uncover extensive problems in the investigative process. As Julian Sanchez exhaustively shows, as deserving of reform as those are, they don’t fundamentally undercut the basic fact that this was an attack on our political order, and the primary motivation of those who launched the investigation was to defend it.
By contrast, Trump sought to benefit from it — and is soliciting more of the same again.
Trump wants to make all of those facts disappear. And Barr is effectively using the power of law enforcement to help him do it.