Bill Barr is at it again. Donald Trump’s attorney general is trying to depict himself as a nonpartisan, just-doing-my-job law enforcement official, even as he ruthlessly and relentlessly pursues a political agenda designed to rewrite history and save his boss.
Barr has spent over a year crusading to discredit the Trump-Russia investigation and nullify Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe. In recent weeks, his Justice Department has moved to limit the sentencing for Roger Stone, the longtime Trump confidant convicted of lying to Congress in the Russia probe, and attempted to drop entirely the case against Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser who had already pleaded guilty of lying to the FBI. Barr has repeatedly voiced suspicions about the origins of the FBI’s Russia investigation—providing support to Trump and other conspiracy theorists who claim it was all a set-up engineered by a supposed Deep State to thwart Trump. He has assigned John Durham, the US attorney for Connecticut, to investigate the investigation and pressed governments overseas for information to bolster Trump’s crackpot claim that the Russia inquiry was a hoax. Barr has waged bureaucratic warfare to discredit a probe that confirmed Russia attacked the 2016 election to help Trump and that landed top Trump lieutenants in the slammer. The big goal: to erase this double-taint on Trump’s presidency, for that is what Trump desperately craves. (Barr’s stance also has the effect of drawing attention from the fact that Russia, according to top intelligence officials, is back for a repeat performance and intervening in the 2020 election.)
Barr conducts this deceitful game slyly, playing footsie with “Obamagate”—the undefined term Trump tosses about to suggest, without evidence, that President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden spied on him and his campaign and used the FBI to mount a phony investigation of his campaign’s contacts with Russia. (A recent FBI inspector general’s report, which criticized the FBI for one aspect of this investigation, concluded that the bureau’s probe had not been politically motivated.) Barr’s statements and actions have fueled the right’s paranoid fantasy that the real scandal is the Russia investigation itself, not the Russian attack, the Trump campaign’s false denials of Russian involvement, or the interactions between Trump’s circle and Russia during the 2016 election. Yet as Barr enables and empowers this nonsense, he is endeavoring to come across reasonable.
On Monday, during a press conference, Barr stated, “As to President Obama and Vice President Biden, whatever their level of involvement based on the information I have today, I don’t expect Mr. Durham’s work will lead to a criminal investigation of either man.” The media took the bait. Fox News posted a story headlined, “Barr says he does not expect criminal investigation of Obama or Biden as result of Durham probe.” NPR did the same: “Barr Doesn’t Expect Russia Probe To Lead To Criminal Investigation Of Obama Or Biden.” You see what Barr did there? He addressed Trump’s cockamamie “Obamagate” hogwash as a legitimate question. By generating headlines that place Obama and Biden in the vicinity of “criminal investigation,” he helped spread the impression that Trump and his campaign are trying to convey: these guys are crooked. To some, it might seem Barr was throwing cold water on Trump’s new line of attack. Yet Barr was treating it as a serious matter, not dismissing it as hokum. For Trump and others looking to orchestrate a bogus scandal to exploit in the fight against Biden, Barr was keeping hope alive.
In this public appearance, Barr also provided Trump’s conservative chorus of conspiracy with direct sustenance. “What happened to the president in the 2016 election and throughout the first two years of his administration was abhorrent,” Barr said. “It was a grave injustice and it was unprecedented in American history.” Here was the attorney general confirming Trump’s claim of victimhood, saying, yes, there was a witch hunt. Moreover, Barr maintained that during 2016 campaign, federal law enforcement officials advanced a “false and utterly basis Russian collusion narrative against the president.”
Wait a second. No such thing happened. Barr, though was echoing the essence of the “Obamagate” bunk: the FBI conspired against Trump in 2016. The bureau, however, throughout the campaign did nothing to advance a narrative against Trump. In fact, it did the opposite. After the FBI (not the Obama White House) launched an investigation of Russian interference in the election and possible connections between Trumpers and Moscow in late July 2016—once again, the IG said this probe was not started for any political purpose—the bureau kept this sensitive inquiry a secret (as it was compelled to do by law and regulations). It pushed out no narratives on this front. Everything was hush-hush. Moreover, during the campaign, the FBI did publicly confirm its investigation of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server when she was secretary of state, and FBI chief Jim Comey, in an unprecedented move, issued a blistering criticism of Clinton, when he announced that criminal investigation would not yield a prosecution. His actions did advance an FBI “narrative” unfavorable for Clinton.
Trump was not inconvenienced in such a fashion. When House Democrats in September 2016 pressed Comey on whether there was any investigation of contacts between Trump’s crew and Russia, the FBI director refused to answer the question and reveal the ongoing probe. And when the New York Times caught wind of the investigation, the FBI downplayed the inquiry, telling the newspaper (via unnamed officials) that there were no conclusive links between Trump and the Russian government and that Moscow’s war on the election was aimed at disrupting American democracy not electing Trump. (As it turned out, the Trump campaign had met with a Russian emissary and been told Moscow was trying to secretly help Trump’s presidential bid, and Trump, through his lawyer, had privately sought assistance from Vladimir Putin’s office for a huge business venture in Moscow, while Trump was campaigning for the presidency.)
So the FBI, contrary to Barr’s assertion, did not orchestrate a Trump-Russia narrative to shape the 2016 election. I know this for a fact. In late October 2016, I was shown a copy of what’s now known as the Steele dossier. These memos, written by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, who had been hired by a research firm paid by the Democrats, contained allegations that Russia was seeking to covertly influence the election to boost Trump and that Trump was in cahoots with the Kremlin and possibly compromised by Moscow. I interviewed Steele, who told me, accurately, that the FBI was investigating allegations in his memos. I contacted the bureau to see if it would confirm—perhaps on background—that it was pursuing this matter and conducting some sort of Trump-Russia investigation. All I received was a no-comment. The bureau was not encouraging any reporting on this. And after I posted an article revealing the FBI’s investigation and Steele’s memos, I obtained a copy of the documents and sent them to the FBI (which already had them) to prove I had the dossier and to see if now the bureau might discuss the memos. Once again, nothing.
We should long be past debating whether the FBI took active steps to quash Trump’s presidential bid. It did not leak damning information about its Trump-Russia investigation. It did not leak the Steele memos. Yet it has become an article of faith within the dark fever swamps of the Trumpian right that the FBI—and now the story includes Obama and Biden—plotted to hatch a fake investigation to block Trump from winning the election. (Some of Trump’s conspiracy mongering promotes the unfounded notion that Ukraine, not Russia, hacked the Democrats to subvert the election.) It does not matter to these disinformation peddlers that the FBI (and Obama!) did not use this investigation during the campaign to stop Trump. Of course, there’s another inconvenient data point for this gang: the FBI’s big October Surprise undermined Clinton, not Trump. Less than two weeks before Election Day, Comey notified GOP lawmakers that the bureau had revived its once-laid-to-rest investigation of Clinton’s emails, and though nothing panned out, the announcement reanimated a controversy and hobbled the final days of Clinton’s campaign.
After that, how can one argue that the FBI was run by a cabal of Trump-haters who would do anything—including manufacturing a fraudulent probe—to prevent him from reaching the White House? If this were the case, why did these Deep Staters and Obama and Biden go through such machinations but then not pull the trigger and use the Trump-Russia investigation against Trump? Why did they follow the rules and say and leak nothing? Well, logic is not at play in all this. Obamagate is a fiction designed to deflect and distract, brought to you by the guy who exploited racist birtherism as a path into presidential politics and who then led red-faced supporters in angry and demagogic chants of “lock her up.” Trump and his minions have been engineering false counter-narratives since the campaign to hide truths that are in plain sight. Reality, facts—they don’t matter. Neither do rules and norms. Nearly a hundred thousand dead Americans don’t count. The only thing of consequence is the spin and the story, true or not, that can be sold. And Barr has become the chief driver of Trump’s say-whatever-it-takes bus. He is the Roy Cohn Trump has yearned for.
After the Justice Department took steps to dump the Flynn case, Barr, during a media interview, noted, with a chuckle, that “history is written by the winners.” But Barr is a clever and wily fellow who knows that formula can be flipped. He is adhering to the rule employed by authoritarians that George Orwell described in 1984: “Who controls the past controls the future.” Using and abusing his immense power as the head of the Justice Department, Barr is attempting mightily to rewrite history to improve Trump’s chance of being a winner in the fall.