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William Barr tries to clean up his Clinton comments — but stumbles into a new Mueller problem

A newly released email makes clear Barr thought Clinton probes were more warranted than Mueller’s collusion probe.

Attorney general nominee William P. Barr on Jan. 15 said despite past criticisms of the Clinton Foundation, he did not say it should be criminally investigated. (Video: The Washington Post)
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Attorney general nominee William P. Barr’s comments about special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s obstruction-of-justice investigation weren’t the only ones at issue in Tuesday’s confirmation hearing; so too were the 2017 comments in which he appeared to advocate more investigations of the Clintons.

But Barr’s attempt to explain away those comments didn’t make a whole lot of sense. And in sum, they suggest he didn’t think much of Mueller’s collusion investigation, either.

Barr was confronted with a New York Times report in which he had said there was more to substantiate an investigation of Hillary Clinton for the Uranium One deal than the probe into potential Trump campaign collusion with Russia.

Here’s how the Times reported it back in November 2017:

Mr. Barr said he sees more basis for investigating the uranium deal than any supposed collusion between Mr. Trump and Russia. “To the extent it is not pursuing these matters, the department is abdicating its responsibility,” he said.

This was especially significant because the Uranium One claims have largely been dismissed as conspiracy theories, including by The Washington Post’s Fact Checker. The idea that Barr would suggest that was more serious than potential Russia collusion seemed to suggest that, if confirmed, Barr might go after the Clintons, as President Trump has long desired.

In his testimony, Barr suggested there wasn’t a whole lot to this — and that he wasn’t even that big on investigating Uranium One.

“I have no knowledge of Uranium One,” he said. “I didn’t particularly think that was necessarily something that should be pursued aggressively. I was trying to make the point that there was a lot out there. I think all that stuff at the time was being looked at by [Utah U.S. Attorney John] Huber,” who is looking into various matters Republicans and Trump want investigated.

Added Barr: “The point I was trying to make there was that whatever the standard is for launching an investigation, it should be dealt with evenhandedly.”

Shortly after that exchange, Times reporter Peter Baker released the whole email Barr sent him at the time. It clearly backed up the paragraph above.

Here’s what Barr wrote to him, in text form:

“There is nothing inherently wrong about a President calling for an investigation.  Although an investigation shouldn’t be launched just because a President wants it, the ultimate question is whether the matter warrants investigation, and I have long believed that the predicate for investigating the uranium deal, as well as the foundation, is far stronger than any basis for investigating so-called ‘collusion.’  Likewise the basis for investigating various ‘national security’ activities carried out during the election, as Senator Grassley has been attempting to do.  To the extent it is not pursuing these matters, the Department is abdicating its responsibility.”

Asked to account for the full email later in the hearing, Barr explained that he wasn’t particularly keen on a criminal investigation into the Clinton Foundation, either.

“I didn’t necessarily say that the Clinton Foundation should be criminally investigated,” Barr said, adding: “It was the kind of thing that I think should have been looked at from a tax standpoint and whether it was complying with the foundation rules the way a corporate foundation is. I thought that there were some things there that merited some attention. But I wasn’t thinking of it in terms of a criminal investigation of the foundation.”

Okay, but even if you accept the idea that Barr wasn’t so gung-ho about investigating the Clintons — which is perhaps plausible — the email makes it abundantly evident that he thought there was even less to prompt the Russian collusion probe than those investigations. (He even apparently thought there was more to warrant an investigation into supposed law enforcement abuses of the Trump campaign during the election, which seems to be what he meant by “various ‘national security’ activities carried out during the election.”) And if he didn’t think those were big deals, what does that say about what he thought about collusion?

It suggests a man who wrote a memo attacking the obstruction-of-justice portion of Mueller’s probe also took a rather dim view of Mueller’s mandate to investigate collusion. That’s both fundamental legs of the Mueller probe, and Barr has now suggested neither was built on much.

Either he wanted to investigate the Clintons more or he thought the collusion questions were no big deal; he can’t have it both ways.