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Democrats’ worst fears about William Barr are proving correct

The Fix’s Aaron Blake explains why Attorney General Barr’s past commentary on the Clintons and the Russian investigation should have raised concerns. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

When William P. Barr was being confirmed as attorney general, some Democrats took solace in the idea that he was at least a mainstream Republican and not necessarily a Trump loyalist. In doing so, they overlooked past commentary that suggested he favored conspiracy theories involving the Clintons and the Russia investigation.

When Barr appointed U.S. Attorney John Durham to look into President Trump’s allegations about the origins of that Russia probe, those same Democrats took solace in the fact that Durham had a reputation as a respected, nonpartisan straight shooter. In doing so, they set aside Barr’s comments about the FBI having “spied” on Trump, along with Durham’s past skepticism of the FBI’s methods.

It’s getting difficult for them to find solace in much of anything involving Barr.

Attorney general nominee William P. Barr faced questions about his independence, the special counsel investigation and more at his confirmation hearing Jan. 15. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

The Washington Post’s Devlin Barrett, Shane Harris and Matt Zapotosky reported Monday that Barr has been traveling overseas to seek help from top allies for Durham’s probe, visiting Britain and making multiple trips to Italy. The Trump administration has also made requests of Australia, whose officials played a key role in alerting U.S. officials to Russian interference. Signs indicate that the Aussies have proven a receptive audience.

The new disclosures recall last week’s news that Trump pressured Ukraine’s president to launch two investigations that carried potential political benefits for him — including one involving the Russia probe’s origins. Barr’s Justice Department downgraded a whistleblower complaint about the matter to a point where it didn’t need to be disclosed to Congress, even though the whistleblower said Barr “appears to be involved." A rough transcript of Trump’s call with Ukraine’s president also showed Trump invoking Barr as someone he would connect the president with to facilitate the investigations. The Justice Department denied Barr did anything as described.

The new revelations are somewhat different than the Ukraine situation, though. It’s one thing to lean on a country to launch its own probes; it’s not quite the same thing to seek its cooperation with an American investigation.

But the news appears to fill out the picture of an attorney general who was suspicious of the Russia probe’s origins from long before he took office, has honed his talking points about them in a very Trumpian direction, and now appears to be spending significant time pressing top allies to give the administration what it wants.

“Bill Barr has personally inserted himself into this,” says national security reporter Matt Zapotsky on Post Reports.

Just because he’s asking for it, of course, doesn’t mean those allies will give him damning evidence to support his and Trump’s suspicions. It’s entirely possible that this will be handled aboveboard, with Durham asserting himself as the staid and reasonable prosecutor he is reputed to be.

But Barr’s involvement portends all kind of uncertainty and lends itself to suspicion. The mere fact that he’s apparently taking such an interest in this — to the extent that he has made repeated overseas trips — suggests this is a topic of significant concern for him. It perhaps indicates that it’s not something he is pursuing just to mollify Trump and check a box for the president who appointed him.

Of course, that shouldn’t really be a surprise, given that Barr has been barking up this tree since 2017. Long before many Republicans were questioning the origins of the Russia investigation, Barr told the New York Times that there was more reason to investigate “various ‘national security’ activities carried out during the election” than there was to investigate potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. (He said the same of the Clinton Foundation and a debunked conspiracy theory involving the Clintons and Uranium One.)

Barr told The Post around the same time, “I don’t think all this stuff about throwing [Clinton] in jail or jumping to the conclusion that she should be prosecuted is appropriate.” Then he added: “But I do think that there are things that should be investigated that haven’t been investigated.”

He now appears to be facilitating one of those investigations — hard. The risk of such high-profile involvement from Barr is that top allies see him as applying pressure on behalf of Trump to get the answers Trump wants, rather than simply making sure they cooperate with the things Durham asks them to do. Barr is clearly not erring on the side of looking like he has completely outsourced this whole thing to Durham and is a passive player.

Trump has frequently thrown his weight around on the world stage in efforts to get allies to do his bidding — most recently, we’ve found out, in the case of Ukraine — and it’s very difficult to separate this from that. The danger is that these countries that rely upon their alliance with the United States get the same message the whistleblower alleged Trump sent to Ukraine: They had better “play ball,” or else. If that message is coming from both Trump and Barr, that’s a lot of pressure.

None of it is a signal of an attorney general just checking a box and/or straining to avoid proving his detractors correct; it’s a signal of an attorney general who has taken the kind of keen interest in this subject that his public comments should have made plainly obvious.