And since then, the brazenness of the ploy has become only clearer.
The Washington Post’s Devlin Barrett and Josh Dawsey reported late Wednesday that Trump and his advisers have floated firing FBI Director Christopher A. Wray and that Barr’s fate is also in the balance because of their noncompliance with Trump’s wishes. The internal deliberations suggest even more strongly that Trump is growing more desperate for something — anything — to aid his reelection.
And several aspects of it all reinforce that.
The first is the scattershot nature of the pleas. Trump’s requests are both wide-ranging and nonspecific. He said he wanted information released not just on supposed wrongdoing by his 2020 opponent, Joe Biden, but also information pertaining to Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama, all of whom he has suggested have engaged in, well, something criminal. So to recap, Trump wants dirt on each of arguably the three most high-profile Democrats of the past decade, including both his presidential predecessor and his 2016 and 2020 electoral opponents. Is it possible all three could have done something wrong? Theoretically! But the fact that he’s targeting all three at once doesn’t exactly suggest this is a focused effort.
And in each case, it’s not even clear what Trump thinks they did wrong. He asked Pompeo to release more details of Clinton’s emails from her time as secretary of state, for instance, but hasn’t said precisely why that’s relevant to a case that was closed long ago with no criminal charges. As for Obama’s and Biden’s proximity to the Russia investigation? Trump has never really made it clear what he thinks they did wrong, apart from attaching the nebulous, scandal-esque term “Obamagate” to it. (Barr, by contrast, has said Obama’s and Biden’s roles in the Russia investigation weren’t even worthy of investigating, and a related unmasking probe recently closed quietly without any charges for anyone involved — or even a public report.)
What’s more, as Barrett and Dawsey report, the White House hasn’t even told Wray precisely what it wants him to disclose:
[White House chief of staff Mark] Meadows has expressed frustration that Wray will not declassify more documents relevant to the FBI’s 2016 probe of Russia’s election interference, though federal law enforcement officials have not been told specifically what documents Meadows wants, according to people familiar with the matter.
So they are really upset about not getting something that they haven’t even specifically requested?
The second key aspect is the timing. It was evident from Trump’s plea two weeks ago that he wanted something to work with by Election Day. Why else would he suddenly be targeting two of his top allies in ways he simply hadn’t before? But since then, that deadline has only become more specific.
In an interview on Fox News on Tuesday, Trump said that “we’ve got to get the attorney general to act” and that Barr should do so “fast.”
“This is major corruption,” Trump added, “and this has to be known about before the election.”
But exactly what could possibly be known by Election Day? That’s less than two weeks away. No investigation could assemble anything amounting to authoritative findings in that span of time. Even if you do believe there is something to Trump’s allegations, which rely on plenty of innuendo and haven’t really connected Biden to anything objectionable that his son Hunter Biden might have done, the vastness and lack of specificity in Trump’s allegations make it only more difficult to launch a quickly executed and focused investigation.
Of course, it’s pretty evident that is not really Trump’s goal. He just wants an investigation to be announced. As Barrett and Dawsey also report:
People familiar with the discussions say Trump wants official action similar to the announcement made 11 days before the last presidential election by then-FBI Director James B. Comey, who informed Congress he had reopened an investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state after potential new evidence had been discovered.
If the FBI and Justice Department did it in 2016, Trump and his supporters might reason, why not now? The key difference, of course, is that Comey was delivering information about an actual investigation that had already taken place. Whatever you think about his decision to disclose the new information, he was confronted with a truly horrible choice: sit on information related to something the Justice Department viewed as a legitimate investigation of one of the two presidential candidates; or offer an unusual disclosure that might (and Clinton supporters believe did) unduly influence the election.
There is no similar established veracity to the allegations against the Bidens today, as evidenced both by the public record and by Trump’s own Justice Department regularly declining to even look into them. Announcing an investigation now, against that backdrop, would be quite different from what Comey did.
In that way, the 2016 parallel isn’t even the most relevant one. I would argue it’s a near carbon copy of what we saw with the Ukraine scandal that led to Trump’s impeachment. Multiple witnesses testified that Trump seemed to be preoccupied not necessarily with Ukraine investigating the Bidens but with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky merely announcing the probe.
“He had to announce the investigations,” Trump’s then-United Nations ambassador, Gordon Sondland, testified. “He didn’t actually have to do them, as I understood it.”
Sondland added: “I never heard … anyone say that the investigations had to start or had to be completed. The only thing I heard from [Trump attorney Rudolph W.] Giuliani or otherwise was that they had to be announced in some form. And that form kept changing.”
Trump’s entire career has been littered with attempts to inject doubt or allege scandals by his political foes, no matter how flimsy. It began with his repeated attempts to raise baseless suggestions about Obama’s birthplace. He knows the political value of planting a seed in people’s minds and is adept at then fertilizing those seeds.
He’s running out of time to fertilize those seeds, though. And the fact that even Barr, one of his most loyal allies — the man who has repeatedly bent over backward for Trump in remarkably political ways — refuses to participate in the planting of them says plenty.