Sessions told Mueller’s investigators that Trump had told him that ” ‘you were supposed to protect me,’ or words to that effect.”
Sessions got the boot last November, after Democrats retook the House — and the power to investigate Trump’s activity. Early this year, Trump nominated William P. Barr to replace him; Barr was confirmed in February.
And just like that, Trump got precisely the attorney general he wanted.
That was first manifested in March, when Mueller completed his work and handed Barr his report on the interference effort and Trump’s 2016 effort. Barr wrote a four-page summary of the report — a summary generous to Trump’s view of the probe and which effectively set expectations for Mueller’s findings once they were made public. In May, he reinforced Trump’s conspiratorial assessment of the Russia investigation by announcing a probe into the investigation’s origins, led by U.S. Attorney John Durham.
When questions arose in September about Trump’s interactions with Ukraine, now the focal point of the articles on impeachment announced Tuesday, Barr’s Justice Department preemptively announced that the president’s actions hadn’t violated any laws.
It’s in the current moment, though, that Barr’s service in defense of Trump has come into the sharpest relief.
On Monday, the Justice Department’s inspector general, Michael Horowitz, released a report assessing the origins of the investigation into possible coordination between Trump’s campaign and the Russian interference effort — the investigation that would become the Mueller probe. The report found concerning behavior by the FBI in pushing for a warrant to surveil Carter Page, who’d at one point been part of Trump’s campaign, and in obtaining renewals for that warrant. But the Horowitz report also undercut a number of claims made by Trump and his defenders: The probe wasn’t a function of a collection of reports compiled by a former British intelligence officer named Christopher Steele, there was no evidence that the probe originated as a function of bias against Trump and there wasn’t evidence that informants had infiltrated the campaign or been deployed before the launch of the investigation.
In an interview with NBC News on Tuesday, though, Barr swept all of that to the side. He’d already released a statement reframing Horowitz’s report to highlight what he saw as nefarious elements. To NBC, though, he went further, often conflating separate issues to bolster Trump’s own articulation of what happened.
Consider FBI agent Peter Strzok, who held a senior position in the probe. He’s been a focus of criticism for months after text messages in which he disparaged Trump were made public. He was not the sole decision-maker on the investigation, however, and Horowitz determined that there was no “documentary or testimonial evidence that political bias or improper motivation” prompted either the main investigation or offshoots that focused on several campaign associates who had links to Russia.
Barr waved that away.
“All he said was, people gave me an explanation and I didn’t find anything to contradict it,” Barr told NBC, adding, “he hasn’t decided the issue of improper motive. I think we have to wait until the full investigation is done.”
The “full investigation,” of course, is that being run by Durham — under Barr’s direction.
Barr made clear his position.
“I think there were gross abuses … and inexplicable behavior that is intolerable in the FBI,” Barr said. “I think that leaves open the possibility that there was bad faith.”
It’s clear that there was inexplicable and possibly abusive behavior revealed by Horowitz as focused on the warrant targeting Page. But Barr conflates that determination with the “possibility” there was bad faith broadly, clearly implying that it may have existed in the launch of the investigation itself. This has long been a claim made by Trump and his allies on Fox News, that the probe began with bias. Horowitz says it didn’t; Barr says ignore Horowitz.
To that end, he defended a statement released by Durham in which Durham offered caution about accepting Horowitz’s findings.
“I think it was important for people to understand that Durham’s work was not being preempted,” Barr said, “and that Durham was doing something different.” The press was arguing that the issue of predication — if there was bias — was “done and over,” and Barr, no stranger to the importance of press narratives, didn’t want that to go unchallenged.
In another interview later Tuesday, Barr made a very thin defense of his claim that there might have been bias in the initiation of the probe. It began July 31 after the Australian government informed the United States that one of their diplomats had spoken with a Trump campaign adviser the previous May. The adviser, George Papadopoulos, had been informed by a Russia-linked professor that the Russians had emails incriminating Hillary Clinton, which Papadopoulos then told the Australian. When WikiLeaks began dumping files in July, Australia thought it was worth giving the United States a heads-up.
Barr shrugged at this as a reason to investigate, saying that there had been speculation about Clinton’s private email server having been hacked for years. Therefore, Papadopoulos talking about Russia having material wasn’t especially noteworthy and, by extension, the investigation wasn’t worth launching.
But he misrepresents what Australia claimed. According to Horowitz’s report, the Australians reported that Papadopoulos had “suggested the Trump team had received some kind of suggestion from Russia that it could assist [the campaign] with the anonymous release of information during the campaign that would be damaging to Mrs. Clinton (and President Obama).” In other words, it wasn’t just that Russia had dirt on Clinton, it was that Papadopoulos said Russia wanted to help. That’s substantively different and something with which Barr should be familiar.
To NBC, Barr also defended his past statements about the Trump campaign having been spied upon — again despite what Horowitz suggests.
“It was clearly spied upon,” Barr said. “That’s what electronic surveillance is … going through people’s emails, wiring people up.”
Sure, one can conflate “spy” and “surveil” in that sense. But there’s a difference between surveilling individuals who may have links to Russia and surveilling the campaign itself. Barr’s use of “it” makes clear he’s referring to the campaign, and the probe launched in late July 2016 was an effort to see if elements of the campaign were coordinating with Russia. But it’s not clear that this involved surveilling the campaign — tapping campaign phones or seizing campaign financial records. Instead, the FBI looked at individual people. There is a difference, in other words, between investigating Dick’s Sporting Goods and investigating two managers and two staffers who work at the store. Founder Richard Stack and his attorney might not see the difference, but it exists.
“From a civil liberties standpoint,” Barr told NBC, “the greatest danger to our free system is that the incumbent government use the apparatus of the state … both to spy on political opponents but also to use them in a way that could affect the outcome of an election.”
There’s some irony to that, of course, given that Barr’s boss stands accused of leveraging the apparatus of the state (foreign aid, White House meetings) to affect the outcome of an election (by asking Ukraine to investigate former vice president Joe Biden). The only comment Barr made about Ukraine, though, was to suggest that he couldn’t definitively say that Ukraine hadn’t interfered in the 2016 election — a pronouncement made by FBI Director Christopher A. Wray shortly before Trump disparaged him on Twitter.
There’s no good evidence that Ukraine did systematically try to interfere in that election, but claims that it did have become central to Trump’s impeachment defense. (The claim is used to rationalize one of the investigations Trump requested from Ukraine.) Much of what Barr said to NBC, in fact, serves to bolster claims made by Trump and on Fox News that otherwise lack evidence outside the conservative media ecosystem.
There was no more ironic statement from Barr in that NBC interview, then, than this one.
“I think our nation was turned on its head for three years based on a completely bogus narrative that was largely fanned and hyped by a completely irresponsible press,” Barr said.
This is certainly true in regards to the theory championed by people like Fox News’s Sean Hannity and embraced by Trump that the Russia investigation was improperly launched and predicated on undercutting Trump. For years, Hannity and others on his network and in conservative media have built out a web of conspiracy theories rationalizing Trump’s view of the Russia probe and alleging sweeping wrongdoing for which there’s little or no evidence. Perhaps this didn’t turn the nation on its head, but the contrast between that presentation of what happened with an objective assessment — like that offered by Horowitz — leads to tremendous friction.
But again, that’s not what Barr’s claiming. He’s saying it was the objective press which was offering a “completely bogus narrative.” He’s saying that he, and not they, are the arbiters of accuracy on this mater.
Exactly what his boss, President Trump, will want to hear.