Is William Barr traveling the world just to soothe the president's ego?
Among the myriad revelations in Trumpworld that have come to light over the past two weeks, one of the most critical is how far the president appears to have gone to undermine the notion that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to help him win. And thanks to reports from The New York Times and The Washington Post, we know that President Trump apparently enlisted Attorney General William Barr — who is America’s top law enforcement official, and not Trump’s personal lawyer— as his main deputy in this mission. It seems that Barr's travels abroad are about more than diplomacy.
The U.S. intelligence community has confirmed that Russia acted covertly during the 2016 election in Trump’s favor. Special Counsel Robert Mueller additionally conducted a nearly two-year investigation and released a report spanning more than 400 pages on the matter.
But Trump has never publicly accepted that idea, even asking reporters earlier this year, “You don't really believe this. Do you believe this?" He has repeated false claims that 3 million undocumented people voted for his election opponent Hillary Clinton as a way of explaining his popular vote loss, and he has hung the 2016 Electoral College results map in the White House.
It’s easy to see that these efforts stem from one place: his wounded pride. After all, the infamous Ukraine call wasn’t just about smearing Vice President Joe Biden — it was also about undermining the Russia investigation, as shown by Trump asking his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate the location of the hacked Democratic National Committee server. The ask was based on a series of wild conspiracy theories stoked by Fox News.
Leaving aside the question of whether Trump himself actually believes what he’s saying about Russian interference — he did, after all, privately tell the country’s ambassador Sergey Lavrov that he was thankful that such interference helped him win, according to a recent Washington Post report — it is inarguable that he and his lackeys are invested in trying to muddy the waters around that conclusion in public. How else to explain Barr’s recent exploits abroad?
Back in May, Barr put together a team led by U.S. Attorney John Durham with the goals of “investigating the origins of the U.S. counterintelligence probe of the Trump 2016 presidential campaign,” per a Department of Justice statement. Over the past six months, Barr, Durham, and Trump have been working together to cast doubt on conclusions that are embarrassing for the president and try instead to portray him as a victim of a politically biased intelligence community, which the president often refers to as the “deep state.”
Per The New York Times, Barr is a key ally in Trump’s sweeping attempts at “using federal law enforcement powers to aid his political prospects, settle scores with his perceived “deep state” enemies and show that the Mueller investigation had corrupt, partisan origins.” Again, Barr is a DOJ official and does not work personally for Trump.
Tellingly, the attorney general has repeatedly expressed doubt about the motivations of the U.S. intelligence apparatus. “Republics have fallen because of Praetorian Guard mentality where government officials get very arrogant, they identify the national interest with their own political preferences, and they feel that anyone who has a different opinion, you know, is somehow an enemy of the state,” he said in a May interview with CBS News. “And you know, there is that tendency that they know better and that, you know, they’re there to protect as guardians of the people. That can easily translate into essentially supervening the will of the majority and getting your own way as a government official.”
He’s backing up all this talk with plenty of action. The New York Times reported earlier this week that Trump has been pressuring the leaders of countries that have ties to the Russia investigation to meet with Barr and Durham. In a phone call, Trump asked Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to meet with Barr and provide internal communications regarding the Mueller probe; Morrison has said his government is “unlikely” to comply.
Trump’s interest in Australia dates back to May 2016, when Alexander Downer, then a top diplomat for the country, got drunk in London with Trump campaign adviser George Papadapoulos. During their lush evening, Papadopoulos told Downer about Russia having possession of Clinton’s hacked emails. That information made it back to the United States, where the FBI opened an investigation into Trump’s campaign — which eventually came under Mueller’s purview.
It’s this inquiry which Barr is reportedly investigating abroad, as he pursues Trump’s goal of demonstrating that the Mueller report came out of partisan attempts to discredit him. Trump also offered Barr's services on the Ukraine call, for investigations into both the 2016 election and Biden.
“In theory, there’s nothing wrong with cross-checking the FBI’s work to make sure it handled its investigation of Trump correctly,” wrote Jonathan Chait in New York. “But everything about this investigation suggests Barr is carrying out a political vendetta at Trump’s orders to intimidate bureaucrats who would defy the authoritarian and lawless president.”
On Wednesday, reports emerged that Trump had pressured British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to help with Barr’s investigation. And for the past few weeks, Barr has been in Italy, pursuing similar work there. According to The Daily Beast, Barr recently spoke with members of the country’s intelligence service, who played him a tape of the shadowy professor Joseph Mifsud — the man who reportedly told Papadopoulos in 2016 about the Russians having Clinton’s emails.
In other words, Barr’s foreign adventures seem explicitly tied to the Russia investigation. Papadopoulos’s meeting in London with Downer, where he spilled information purportedly from Mifsud, links exactly the three countries Barr that has been poking around in.
Barr isn’t being accused of illegal behavior, per se — at least not to the same extent that Trump has been over the Ukraine phone call. But that doesn’t mean that his actions aren’t noteworthy. The attorney general spending time and taxpayer money to apparently pursue Trump’s personal grudges indicates the extent to which naked partisanship has transformed the country’s law enforcement apparatus at the highest levels. The Washington Post reported Monday that “current and former intelligence and law enforcement officials expressed frustration and alarm ... that the head of the Justice Department was taking such a direct role in reexamining what they view as conspiracy theories and baseless allegations of misconduct.”
As if to underline that point, recent reports indicate that some contributors at Fox News (whose opinion section has blared the conspiracy horn about the supposed bias of the Trump-Russia investigation for years) have even been working with Rudy Giuliani — who is a personal attorney to Trump — on the Ukraine smear operation.
The main pursuit of the country’s top law enforcement officer is apparently being materially assisted by a virtual state propaganda outlet. It’s remarkably authoritarian.
This is the kind of hyper-partisan environment in which House Democrats will be conducting their impeachment inquiry, and they face what might be described as the final boss of the Trump presidency: a multi-tentacled, well-oiled synergistic operation that involves the executive branch, the DOJ, and Fox News cooperating to portray any information damaging to Trump as part of a vast conspiracy. Various participants in this scheme may have broken laws and pressured foreign governments to that end.
And it appears that the beating heart for the entire volatile machine, a carnival of domestic propaganda and international intrigue, is the same force that’s driven so much of American politics in recent years: Trump’s wounded pride.