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Attorney General Barr stokes the conspiracy fires

Attorney General William P. Barr listens at a roundtable discussion on Wednesday in Anchorage. (Mark Thiessen/AP)
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Attorney General William P. Barr spoke at length with CBS News’s Jan Crawford this week. Over the course of the interview, he didn’t reveal much new information, but he repeatedly reiterated the allegation that the investigation into possible coordination between Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia was in some way suspicious.

Barr made clear that he felt there had been improper behavior on the part of members of the FBI’s senior team. His concern, he said, was predicated on his experience at the CIA in the 1970s; a period during which the agency was dealing with significant questions about its activity.

Exactly how isn't clear.

“The attorney general’s responsibility is to make sure that these powers are not used to tread upon First Amendment activity,” Barr said, “and that certainly was a big part of my formative years of dealing with those issues.”

Mueller’s statement highlights key differences with Barr on investigation

Equating the danger of foreign interference in an election with government abuse of power, Barr suggested that there was, at times, a “Praetorian Guard mentality” in which leaders “identify the national interest with their own political preferences.” Later, he made a similar claim about the FBI leadership at the time the Russia probe began.

“Sometimes people can convince themselves that what they’re doing is in the higher interest, the better good,” he said. “They don’t realize that what they’re doing is really antithetical to the democratic system that we have.”

His point?

“I think it’s important to understand what basis there was for launching counterintelligence activities against a political campaign, which is the core of our … First Amendment liberties in this country,” Barr said.

He refused to identify individuals by name, but he did refer to text messages sent by Peter Strzok, the FBI counterintelligence agent who opened the investigation in late July. (That investigation was then folded into special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe in May 2017.)

“It’s hard to read some of the texts,” Barr said, “and not feel that there was gross bias at work, and they’re appalling.”

This is a remarkable assertion by itself. Barr is echoing a common refrain among President Trump’s supporters that Strzok’s text messages — in which he disparaged Trump and advocated his defeat — necessarily suggest that his actions as an FBI employee were tainted.

Strzok told congressional investigators that he was able to compartmentalize his feelings.

“What distresses me the most are [that] people’s suggestion that the FBI is the sort of place where that even could possibly occur,” he said in June 2018, “is destructive to the rule of law and the mission of the FBI to protect the United States.”

It’s a claim made this week by the attorney general.

Asked for evidence that something untoward happened at the outset of the investigation, Barr demurred.

“Like many other people who are familiar with intelligence activities, I had a lot of questions about what was going on,” Barr told Crawford. “I assumed I’d get answers when I went in, and I have not gotten answers that are, well, satisfactory, and in fact probably have more questions, and that some of the facts that I’ve learned don’t hang together with the official explanations of what happened.”

"Things are just not jiving,” he added.

Again: Barr’s concern is centered on the FBI having launched “counterintelligence activities against a political campaign.” That, in itself, is a subjective way of considering what is publicly known about what happened.

Barr frames the investigation as problematic and a government intrusion because it was “spying” — his term and the president’s — on the campaign. What we know happened, though, is that the FBI received information about a contact between a Trump campaign adviser and Russians with apparent knowledge about emails and other material stolen from Hillary Clinton and her allies. The investigation was focused on counterintelligence, and determining in particular whether two advisers — Carter Page and George Papadopoulos — had been compromised by the Russian government. (Papadopoulos had gotten the tip about the emails; Page visited Moscow in July 2016 after already being on the FBI’s radar as a possible Russian asset.)

Is that “launching counterintelligence against a campaign"?

At another point, Crawford quoted Barr back to himself. She noted that he’d said during testimony that an investigation of the FBI’s leadership “is not launching an investigation of the FBI frankly to the extent there were any issues at the FBI."

"I do not view it as a problem that's endemic to the FBI,” Crawford quoted Barr as saying. “I think there was probably a failure among a group of leaders there at the upper echelon."

"That's right,” Barr agreed.

So, according to Barr, an investigation of questionable actions by FBI leaders isn’t an investigation of the FBI, but an investigation focused on whether low-level campaign advisers had been compromised is an investigation of a campaign.

At times, Barr let slip shorthand descriptors for what took place that are flatly wrong.

“From my perspective, the idea of resisting a democratically elected president and basically throwing everything at him and, you know, really changing the norms on the grounds that we have to stop this president,” he said, “that is where the shredding of our norms and our institutions is occurring.”

Here, Barr's referring to another Strzok text message in which he says that “we'll stop” Trump from winning the election. A problematic thing to say, certainly, but it was well before Trump actually became president. Which, we'll remind you, he did: There's been no evidence presented that Strzok did anything from his position at the FBI to try to impede Trump's election.

“You know,” Barr said at another point, “Mueller has spent 2½ years, and the fact is there is no evidence of a conspiracy. So it was bogus, this whole idea that the Trump [campaign] was in cahoots with the Russians is bogus.”

This also appears to be untrue. In his public statement this week, Mueller said that the evidence to prove a conspiracy was “insufficient” — not that none existed. There’s obviously evidence that points to the possibility of coordinated activity between Trump’s campaign and Russian actors — numerous meetings, surreptitious points of contact between the two, even sharing of poll data between Trump’s former campaign chairman and a man believed to be connected to Russian intelligence. Mueller didn’t prove a conspiracy, but to say there was no evidence of conspiracy is simply indefensible.

Barr says he’s unconcerned about the toll his job is taking on his reputation

Let’s consider a hypothetical. If you had an attorney general working for a mercurial president, an attorney general who recognized that the president was invested heavily in a particular narrative that he’d been promoting in symbiosis with the conservative media, and if that attorney general wanted to publicly bolster the president’s narrative while otherwise keeping mum — how would that attorney general’s responses have differed substantively from Barr’s?

Barr has access to more information than we do, and we look forward to learning more about the genesis of the Russia investigation. What Barr’s interview with CBS accomplished, though, wasn’t to shed any new light on that question. Instead it was to present a defense of Trump’s view of what happened, a view that is necessarily biased and certainly, based on what’s publicly know, worthy of being treated with skepticism.