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‘One of the greatest travesties in American history’: Barr drops all pretense about ongoing probe of Russia investigation

Attorney General William P. Barr speaks with President Trump and the coronavirus task force last month. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Attorney General William P. Barr hasn’t been terribly subtle about where he stands on the appropriateness of the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. He wrote an unsolicited, extensive memo deriding it in 2017, suggesting that a conspiracy theory involving the Clintons was more worthy of investigation. When an inspector general issued a report in December saying the investigation was properly founded, Barr put out an extraordinary statement disagreeing with that.

And now, Barr has gone quite a bit further. He is explicitly leaning into President Trump’s long-standing allegation that this was a witch hunt intended to bring down a president. Before we even get a report he ordered up from U.S. Attorney John Durham, who is examining the origins of the Russia probe, Barr has declared this to be a historic scandal.

“What happened to him was one of the greatest travesties in American history,” Barr said in a clip played on Fox News on Wednesday night. “Without any basis, they started this investigation of his campaign, and even more concerning actually is what happened after the campaign — a whole pattern of events while he was president … to sabotage the presidency — or at least have the effect of sabotaging the presidency.”

Barr’s comments go further than what he said in December. After Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz found that the investigation had an “authorized purpose” and that he found no evidence of political animus, Barr issued a statement.

“The inspector general’s report now makes clear that the FBI launched an intrusive investigation of a U.S. presidential campaign on the thinnest of suspicions that, in my view, were insufficient to justify the steps taken,” Barr said at the time. Horowitz’s report amounted to “malfeasance and misfeasance” and “a clear abuse of the FISA process,” he added, referring to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Barr added in an interview with ABC News at the time that it was a “travesty” and said that “the greatest danger” to our government is using government assets “to spy on political opponents, but also to use them in a way that could affect the outcome of the election.” He was careful to say, though, that he would await the investigation before determining if that is what happened.

“I think that leaves open the possibility for bad faith,” Barr said. “I think it’s premature now to reach a judgment on that, but I think further work has to be done, and that’s what Durham is doing.”

Barr has now apparently reached a judgment on that, even without Durham’s report. While he called it a “travesty” before, he is now calling it “one of the greatest travesties in American history.” While he said that the evidence was “insufficient” before, he’s now saying the probe was “without any basis” whatsoever. While he said that he couldn’t yet say if it was done in “bad faith” before, he now says it was done “to sabotage the presidency — or at least have the effect of sabotaging the presidency.”

That last phrase is conspicuous. Barr alleges that this was indeed a political effort to take Trump down — letting that linger — and then pulls it back a bit by allowing for the possibility that it was not necessarily intended as such. Barr is a very smart lawyer who knows how to choose his words carefully. The idea that he would carelessly toss out such a firm, final judgment about this being an effort to “sabotage” Trump without believing it or wanting to plant that seed seems extremely unlikely.

Attorney General William Barr said Dec. 10 the FBI may have acted in "bad faith" when it investigated possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. (Video: Reuters)

It’s not difficult to see where this is going. But then again, it wasn’t too difficult to see where it was going when Barr was confirmed as attorney general. At the time, it was noted that he said in 2017 that the Russia investigation was less substantiated than various investigations of the Clintons, including one debunked theory involving Uranium One.

“I have long believed that the predicate for investigating the uranium deal, as well as the [Clinton] Foundation, is far stronger than any basis for investigating so-called ‘collusion,’ ” Barr told the New York Times’s Peter Baker at the time. “Likewise the basis for investigating various ‘national security’ activities carried out during the election....”

Barr was pressed on that first one during his confirmation, and he said: “I have no knowledge of Uranium One. I didn’t particularly think that was necessarily something that should be pursued aggressively.” So if you combine those two statements, he “long believed” that a Uranium One investigation was more warranted than the Russia probe, despite knowing nothing about it and not thinking it was particularly important.

You could sure be forgiven for thinking he actually reached the determination he expressed Wednesday more than three years ago.