Three weeks before the election and as he trails Biden in polls nationally as well as in key states, Trump is issuing a new torrent of threats and demands for federal action against Democrats, including former president Barack Obama, that go beyond his familiar and often erroneous claims of wrongdoing by his perceived political enemies.
One main difference is in the level of anger being leveled at Barr, a deeply conservative lawyer picked for the job after Trump complained that Barr’s predecessor, Jeff Sessions, was disloyal.
The president’s calls for the Justice Department to target his political opposition in the heat of a presidential campaign is a jarring moment without precedent in modern American history. But it is in keeping with Trump’s actions when he has faced adversity, which now includes testing positive for the coronavirus last week after for months minimizing the threat posed by a deadly virus that has killed more than 213,000 Americans.
“The behavior would be shocking in a normal presidency, but Trump has literally been doing this for years,” Harvard Law School professor Jack Goldsmith, a Justice Department official in the George W. Bush administration, said of Trump’s calls to go after Democrats. “So it is reprehensible, but not shocking.”
Trump said he is disappointed in Barr over the federal probe, the results of which Barr has told Republicans will not be ready before the Nov. 3 election, said people familiar with the discussions who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the investigation.
“If that’s the case, I’m very disappointed,” Trump said during an interview with radio host Rush Limbaugh. “I think it’s a terrible thing. And I’ll say it to his face.”
Later, he added: “That’s a disgrace. I think it’s a disgrace. It’s an embarrassment.”
Kerri Kupec, a Justice Department spokeswoman, declined to comment on Trump’s remarks.
A person familiar with the discussions said that Barr understands Trump’s frustration but that the public pressure was “not going to change anything.”
“There’s a process, and the process that has to be followed,” the person said.
The U.S. attorney in charge of the inquiry, John Durham, is supposed to be independent. Trump could fire Durham but otherwise has little power to force a quick resolution of Durham’s months-long review.
The president also said one of his motivations for winning reelection is to bring people like Clinton and former deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe “to justice” for what he and other conservatives allege was a coordinated plot to tie him to Russia to discredit his electoral victory.
“First of all, if we don’t win this election, that whole thing’s going to end, okay? And you just remember that as well,” Trump said. “That’s another thing I’m fighting for because these people have to be brought to justice, but they should have been brought to justice before the election. But if we don’t win this election, if we don’t win, that whole thing is going to be dismissed.”
Advisers said Trump has grown fixated on the Durham report in recent weeks, even turning up the television when segments about the report are aired on Fox Business host Lou Dobbs’s show or other Fox News programming.
The president has complained to advisers that “nothing is going to happen” and has said that he thought Durham was a tougher investigator and that there would be arrests or charges, current and former advisers said.
White House officials said Barr has sought to lower expectations in recent weeks, making sure that senior officials in the West Wing are not expecting anything before the election.
So far, Durham has charged just one person — former FBI lawyer Kevin Clinesmith — with altering an email that was used as the FBI applied to surveil former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. Clinesmith pleaded guilty in the case and is awaiting sentencing.
Durham, who Barr specially assigned early last year to review the FBI’s 2016 investigation of Trump’s campaign, has been exploring a wide range of what conservatives consider missteps in the probe.
He has questioned why the FBI opened the case in the first place — though the Justice Department inspector general determined agents had just cause to do so — and why they pressed forward with an examination of Page, even as that examination produced no real results. He has interviewed intelligence community witnesses, including former CIA director John Brennan, about their assessment that Russia intended to help Trump become president.
Conservatives had hoped for — and Democrats had feared — a massive report released on the eve of the election blasting FBI and Justice Department officials in the Obama administration for their handling of the Russia probe, potentially offering some measure of support for Trump’s repeated attacks on the investigation.
But Barr has now told some lawmakers such a document will not be delivered before Nov. 3, and it is unclear whether it ever will. Barr has repeatedly insisted that Durham’s focus is to charge people with crimes, and a person familiar with discussions about Trump’s pressure noted that issuing a public report would not be compatible with indictments.
“If there’s any probability of prosecution, the department obviously would not be able to put out a report that would implicate that,” the person said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to detail internal deliberations.
Barr, too, has said publicly that Obama and former vice president Biden are not under investigation — dashing any hopes of charges against them.
Administration officials have expressed frustration in recent days about Trump publicly pressing his attorney general to bring indictments against his political foes, noting that it could hurt his campaign and wondering among themselves if he is “trying to lose,” the person familiar with the matter said.
Barr has in the past intervened in cases on which the president has publicly commented. After Trump tweeted his dismay at career prosecutors’ sentencing recommendation for Trump friend Roger Stone, for example, Barr had the Justice Department advise a lesser penalty.
Trump has often expressed his dismay at the prosecution of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, and Barr’s Justice Department has moved to drop that case entirely — even though Flynn had pleaded guilty and was awaiting sentencing. A judge is still mulling the department’s request.
After Trump’s tweet about Stone, Barr said publicly that the president’s comments on ongoing cases “make it impossible for me to do my job.”
Trump has continued to weigh in, and his remarks this week were his most directly critical of Barr.
“Unless Bill Barr indicts these people for crimes, the greatest political crime in the history of our country, then we’re going to get little satisfaction unless I win and we’ll just have to go, because I won’t forget it,” Trump said during an interview with Fox Business on Thursday.
The same day, Trump said he was also disappointed in Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for not getting more of Clinton’s old State Department emails released publicly. On Friday, Pompeo told Fox News he is working to do so before the Nov. 3 election.
“We’ve got the emails, we’re getting them out, we’re going to get all the information out so the American people can see it,” Pompeo said.
Pompeo rehashed the more than five-year-old controversy around Clinton’s use of a private email server and address for her government work as secretary of state between 2009 and 2013.
A 2016 FBI investigation into her emails found no reason to bring charges against Clinton, describing her conduct as careless but not criminal. The Obama administration State Department released thousands of her emails for public scrutiny.
But Trump and many Republicans remain fixated on 33,000 emails that Clinton deleted from her private account, which she has said were personal and unrelated to her government work.
It’s unclear whether those emails are what Trump and Pompeo are referring to when they talk about releasing more Clinton emails, or information pertaining to her emails. The FBI was not able to recover all of those messages.
Trump is eager for whatever it is to made public before next month’s election, which Pompeo said he is working to make happen.
“We’re doing it as fast as we can,” Pompeo said. “I certainly, I certainly think there’ll be more to see before the election.”
Trump continued to rehash the Clinton email issue Friday, telling Limbaugh that Clinton had deleted emails and “she should be in jail for that.”
On Thursday, he called for Obama and Biden to be indicted and lumped several adversaries and conspiracy theories together in a string of complaints on Twitter.
“Wow!!! NOW DO SOMETHING ABOUT THIS, THE BIGGEST OF ALL POLITICAL SCANDALS (IN HISTORY)!!! BIDEN, OBAMA AND CROOKED HILLARY LED THIS TREASONOUS PLOT!!! BIDEN SHOULDN’T BE ALLOWED TO RUN — GOT CAUGHT!!!” he wrote in one post.
Trump’s power to unilaterally order federal action against individuals is limited, and he cannot alone pursue a federal charge of treason against anyone.
Congressional Republicans retain some other outlets to get the type of information examined in Durham’s report before the public before the election, particularly in the GOP-led Senate, where three panels have been conducting parallel investigations into the origins of the federal government’s Trump-Russia probe.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), an ally of the president who is facing a close reelection battle, in recent months has published several declassified documents from the Justice Department and FBI, to back up his claims that information in a dossier of Trump’s alleged Russia ties was faulty and that officials adhered to different standards in their investigations of Trump and Hillary Clinton. In recent weeks, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe has also provided Graham and other committees declassified records about unverified Russian intelligence suggesting Clinton signed off on plans to blame the Trump campaign for the Russian hack of the Democratic National Committee in 2016
Ratcliffe’s recent tactics have earned him bipartisan condemnation on Capitol Hill. But GOP-led panels continue to push the intelligence community to produce more documents ahead of the election.
This week, Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), sent letters to both CIA Director Gina Haspel and FBI Director Christopher A. Wray, pressing them to make good on requests and subpoenas for documents related to their joint probe of the FBI’s Crossfire Hurricane investigation.
Johnson has been authorized to subpoena and depose up to 40 people in the committees’ probe, which has yet to issue any findings. While it is unclear what the endgame is for the joint investigation, it is possible that the panels could release interim findings before the election.
Colby Itkowitz contributed to this report.