The “Durham probe” is the investigation launched by Barr a year ago digging into the origins of the FBI’s investigation of Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 election. The Russia investigation, as it has come to be known, was much broader than simply considering Russia’s stealing of information that was later released by WikiLeaks.
It also included consideration of whether individuals close to Trump’s presidential campaign that year were working explicitly or indirectly to promote Russia’s interests. It included investigations of campaign advisers Carter Page, Michael Flynn and George Papadopoulos and campaign chairman Paul Manafort. The probe was eventually subsumed into the investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and led to a variety of criminal charges, many of which were not directly related to the campaign.
Trump has consistently framed this entire probe as biased and an effort to curtail either his chances of being elected or, later, his presidency. There’s been an entire ecosystem of theories and assertions that has evolved to support Trump’s claim, many of them obviously bogus or after-the-fact cherry-picking. Barr’s appointment of U.S. Attorney John Durham to look at the way in which the investigation emerged was meant, among other things, to formalize the theorizing — to create an institutionally validated throughline to all of the Fox News commentary.
Trump, catching up with Barr’s interview with Baier earlier this week, now promises that something good is coming. The problem, of course, is that Trump has repeatedly tapped Barr’s credibility on a wide range of issues — meaning that those most likely to accept Barr’s current framing of what to expect are those most loyal to Trump’s position broadly. The final report itself will have the same overhanging cloud: What should we make of Barr’s stamp of approval?
Barr was vague when Baier pressed him on what Durham was finding. He refused to say whether criminal charges would result from the probe but did make clear his skepticism about the Russia investigation itself.
“I think we’re concerned about the motive force behind the very aggressive investigation that was launched into the Trump campaign without, you know, with a very thin, slender reed as a basis for it,” he said. “It seemed that the Bureau was sort of spring-loaded at the end of July to drive in there and investigate a campaign. And there really wasn’t much there to do that on. And that became more and more evident as they went by.”
This, by itself, is a distinctly favorable framing for the president. The “investigation into the Trump campaign” that sprang into being in late July 2016 was, again, an investigation that was looking at an individual: Papadopoulos, who told a foreign diplomat that he had heard that Russia possessed material incriminating Trump’s 2016 opponent. It was a counterintelligence investigation, not a criminal one. Page, Manafort and Flynn all came under scrutiny in part because of links to Russia: Page having traveled there in early July, Manafort having worked for pro-Russian interests and Flynn having dined with Putin at an event in Moscow the prior December, among other things. One would hope that the FBI’s counterintelligence team is “spring-loaded” to launch investigations into whether individuals are working with foreign intelligence agencies, given that it’s their mandate.
Barr’s dismissiveness and focus on things like a dossier of reports compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele mirror how conservative media has treated the Russia probe, generally while following Trump’s lead.
“If people want to say that I'm political because I am looking at those potential abuses of power, so be it,” Barr said. “But that's the job of the attorney general.”
Barr’s efforts to defend Trump’s position here go much further than “looking at those potential abuses of power.”
When Mueller completed his work last year, he submitted a lengthy report to Barr about his findings. The report included details of a number of questionable interactions between members of Trump’s campaign and Russian actors, including some details that came to the attention of federal investigators only once Trump was in office. Mueller’s team didn’t find enough evidence to bring criminal conspiracy charges against anyone, although it did charge a number of individuals for their actions directly related to interference efforts and to other alleged criminal activity.
Barr took Mueller’s report and quickly released a four-page document broadly exonerating the president. This immediately framed Mueller’s findings as exculpatory, even though Barr admitted that the decision to clear Trump of culpability for attempting to obstruct Mueller’s investigation came from Barr himself and then-Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein. During a news conference held immediately before the full report was released, Barr again undercut Mueller’s actual findings.
That was the highest-profile way in which Barr leveraged his position to defend Trump. When an independent investigation into the origins of the Russia probe from the Justice Department inspector general was released last December, it included a determination that the probe had sufficient cause to justify being opened. After the report was made public, Durham took the unusual step of releasing a statement suggesting that the matter remained unsettled until his own report was complete — a report based on research being conducted in some cases by Barr himself.
There are numerous other examples of Barr weighing in in unexpected ways on Trump's behalf. Like his department's decision to scale back the sentencing recommendation for longtime Trump ally Roger Stone, who faced charges stemming from Mueller's probe. Like his decision to drop charges against Flynn — despite Flynn having twice admitted to lying to federal investigators.
When that decision was made, the judge overseeing Flynn's case refused to simply accept the government's remarkable charge of direction. U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan appointed retired federal judge John Gleeson to argue against the Justice Department's new position. On Wednesday, Gleeson offered his thoughts.
“The Government has engaged in highly irregular conduct to benefit a political ally of the President,” he wrote. He accused the Justice Department of “transparent disingenuousness” in its reversal and described the move as being a “corrupt, politically motivated dismissal.”
Sullivan was “essentially, in our view, trying to set himself up as an alternative prosecutor,” Barr said to Baier of the judge’s response to the Justice Department’s decision on Flynn.
Remarkably, in the interview itself, Barr demonstrated the extent to which he is willing to sacrifice his credibility in service to Trump’s politics. At one point, Baier asked Barr whether, in retrospect, he would have done anything differently in the clearing of peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square on June 1 shortly before Trump crossed the square for a photo op.
As he has previously, Barr disingenuously conflated the violent protests that occurred Sunday with the peaceful ones that occurred on Monday and conflated the decision to extend the security perimeter around the White House — a decision made well before Trump’s walk across the square — with the timing of the clearing of the protesters itself.
The question isn’t whether a decision had been made to clear Lafayette Square; it’s whether it happened when it did because of Trump’s desire to visit a church that sat on the other side of the park. The evidence makes quite clear that this is precisely why the square was cleared when it was; it also makes clear that the effort to clear the square began right after Barr spoke with supervising personnel from the U.S. Park Police.
“My decision that you asked me about earlier was moving the perimeter one block to provide greater security for the White House,” Barr said to Baier. It wasn’t; it was generally whether in retrospect he would have taken the same actions he did on Monday.
“This canard that this exercise was done to make that possible is totally false,” Barr added a bit later. This is like arguing that because you’d been meaning to bring your clothes in off the clothesline all along, it’s a “canard” to say that you did only because it was about to rain. Maybe the security perimeter was about to be extended, but it was Trump’s trip that obviously motivated it to occur when it did, half an hour before a mandatory curfew went into place anyway.
The point here isn’t really about what happened in Lafayette Square. Instead, it’s that Barr has conducted multiple media interviews in which he has obfuscated about what happened in Lafayette Square in order to defend the president’s actions. It’s that Barr wants America to have confidence in his objective assessments of events even as he obviously offers subjective rationales.
It’s that Trump needs Barr to be seen as an objective actor even while he constantly relies on Barr to take actions that obviously serve his own political needs. A tweet from the president in which he hints that Barr is alarmed about what Durham is finding, then, should be considered only in the context of everything else Barr has said.