The fact that Barr is going to such great lengths on this task is one thing. But what is he even after in those countries?
The answer suggests the investigation is chasing down some pretty bold conspiracy theories.
Below is a look at how each country could figure in to the investigation and what the prevailing theory might be inside Trump- and Barr-world.
This is the most obvious one. The Mueller report states that the initial FBI investigation of potential collusion between Russia and Trump’s presidential campaign was launched shortly after a tip from a “foreign country” — a country news reports have identified as Australia.
Basically, a London-based Maltese professor with ties to Russia, Joseph Mifsud, told Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos that Russia had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. Then Papadopoulos told an Australian diplomat in London, Alexander Downer, that he had received word that the Russian government could help the Trump campaign by releasing the information anonymously.
The conspiracy theory, which began with Papadopoulos but took some time to germinate even in conservative media circles, is that Mifsud was an agent of a Western government or even a CIA asset and that he set up Papadopoulos.
Papadopoulos, who pleaded guilty in October 2017 to lying to investigators, has alleged the whole thing amounted to a setup and that he had been “entrapped.” Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani has said it was a “counterintelligence trap.” Former House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) has said, “When you look into Mifsud closer, you realize he’s connected with all kinds of intelligence agencies, including our own FBI.”
Intelligence officials have rejected the idea as baseless and noted that the CIA is prohibited by law from targeting Americans.
Australia figures in this, too, because Papadopoulos has suggested Downer was part of the setup. “What I believe he was doing was spying on me,” Papadopoulos told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. in May. “It’s as if I was there being interrogated and profiled by an intelligence officer — and that’s exactly what I left that meeting thinking.”
By obtaining Australian cooperation, Barr could be probing this particular conspiracy theory.
Britain obviously figures into the above, given that the meetings took place there. Relatedly, it was also where another professor, Stefan A. Halper, reached out to three Trump campaign sources in 2016 to discuss foreign policy. Halper around the same time began serving as a source in the FBI’s Russia investigation.
But there’s another major way in which it could play into theories about the Russia probe’s origins: the Steele dossier.
The dossier was assembled by a former British intelligence operative, Christopher Steele, who was hired by Fusion GPS, a research firm that was initially retained by Trump’s conservative opponents but by that time was being funded by Democrats. The Trump team has made dubious allegations that the dossier launched the Russia investigation — despite the government having been alerted to it months after the FBI probe got off the ground. The implication was that the Russia probe was based upon the dossier’s largely unproved and unverified claims.
Nunes has also argued in his eponymous memo that the FBI used the dossier as a bogus pretext for surveilling another former Trump foreign policy adviser, Carter Page, and suggested the government obscured the dossier’s partisan associations. (This claim doesn’t exactly check out, though, given that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act application to surveil Page included a lengthy footnote explaining that the information was funded by political interests.)
Involving Britain could be aimed at learning more about Steele and his work. Trump himself has also promoted the conspiracy theory that the United Kingdom was “baiting the United States into taking a hard line against” Russia — apparently by falsifying information.
Here’s what he retweeted in March:
It will be interesting to see whether British officials are interested in entertaining such conspiracy theories about themselves.
Of the three countries, this is perhaps the least obviously tied to the Russia investigation. But it reinforces the apparent interest in the Mifsud conspiracy theory, and Barr has visited there twice.
Mifsud was born in Malta but educated in Italy. Giuliani has accused him of being a “counterintelligence operative, either Maltese or Italian.” Papadopoulos has hailed Barr’s travel to Italy, saying it holds the “keys to the kingdom.”
Mifsud was last seen working as a visiting professor in Rome in 2017, but he has since disappeared. Perhaps Barr is trying to find out what happened to him or to locate him for questioning related to the above theories.
Whatever the case, the focus on the three countries above suggests Barr and the U.S. attorney in charge of the probe, John Durham, are very much checking into Giuliani’s and Papadopoulos’s conspiracy theories. You could also lump Ukraine in with the three, as Trump has pressed its president to pursue a separate investigation that suggests Russia might not be behind the 2016 election interference. But in that case, the Justice Department has denied Barr’s involvement.
Whatever the case, it’s a remarkable shift from when Papadopoulos was shouting these ideas into the void not so long ago.
Correction: This post initially said Steele’s work had at first been funded by Trump’s conservative opponents. He was hired after Fusion GPS was being funded by Democrats.