Sunday, December 15, 2019

As Attorney General, Barr Is Trump's Roy Cohn

      President Trump has been obsessed for the past three years by the belief that the FBI tried to sabotage his 2016 presidential campaign by opening an investigation of the campaign's links to Russian operatives. Now, the Justice Department's inspector general has published a massive, 448-page report [Dec. 9] that absolved the FBI of any political bias in opening the investigation and thoroughly debunked Trump's continued insistence that the FBI was out to get him.
       Political motives were in plain view, however, when Attorney General William Barr reacted to the inspector general's report not by embracing the refutation of Trump's narrative but by emphasizing the now documented errors that FBI agents and officials made in the eventual course of the investigation.
       Barr, appointed by President Trump after his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, refused to do his bidding, is continuing in his comments to play the role of Trump's protector-in-chief at Main Justice. Barr, it will be recalled, responded to the Mueller Report on the Russia investigation first by withholding it and then by claiming, wrongly, that it exonerated Trump. Now, Barr is trashing the Russia investigation even though the thorough review shows that the FBI had sufficient grounds to open the investigation and did so without political bias or motive.
       Admittedly, the inspector general, Michael Horowitz, told a Senate committee last week in a prepared statement that the investigation did not amount to "vindication" for the FBI in conducting the investigation officially dubbed "Operation Crossfire Hurricane." And James Comey, the FBI director at the time who was later fired by Trump to try to thwart the Russia investigation, acknowledged his responsibility for the mistakes in an appearance on Fox News on Sunday [Dec. 15]. "I was wrong," Comey told the Fox anchor Chris Wallace.
      The 17 major errors cited in the report included confirmation of one of Trump's major talking points: misplaced reliance on inaccurate or unsupported assertions in the report on Trump prepared by the British intelligence agent Christopher Steele. The IG's report found that unsubstantiated representations from the so-called Steele Dossier were cited in three of the applications to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court for warrants to wiretap the one-time Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page.
      Barr went much further than errors such as those, however, in criticizing the FBI investigation in contradiction to the IG report's finding that the launch of the investigation was proper and untainted by "political bias or improper motivation." In FBI-speak, the report found that FBI agents and the various signing-off supervisors had sufficient "predictation" for opening the investigation.
      Specifically, the report relates, the investigation stemmed from a report by an intelligence agency from a Friendly Foreign Government (FFG) — Australia, but unnamed in the report — reporting on communications between Page and Russian operatives. The report contradicts one of the Trump talking points — specifically, that Page was planted into the Trump campaign as part of a politically motivated political sting.
      In blatant disregard of actual facts, Barr responded to the report by saying, among other things, that the FBI "launched an intrusive investigation of a U.S. presidential campaign on the thinnest of suspicions . . . ." Contrary to the FISA court's decisions, Barr contended that those suspicions were "insufficient to justify the steps taken."
      Barr went on to describe the investigation as consisting of "spying" on the Trump campaign. In FBI-speak, "spying" would consist of placing a confidential informant inside a suspect organization; the term would not be used to describe court-authorized electronic surveillance, as occurred in Crossfire Hurricane. In a further rant, Barr contended that the country was "turned on its head for three years" because of the Russia investigation — in apparent preference for no investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
      For Barr, his good deeds for the president did not go unpunished. Instead, Barr himself became the main story by week's end as critics emerged to contend that he had politicized the department in blatant disregard of its traditional if idealized independence from the White House. Among the critics was one of Barr's predecessors: Eric Holder, who served for eight years as President Obama's attorney general.
      In an op-ed article written for The Washington Post, Holder contended forthrightly that Holder was "unfit" to continue as attorney general. Barr's most recent remarks, Holder argued, continued "a series of public statements and . . .  actions that are so plainly ideological, so nakedly partisan and so deeply inappropriate for America’s chief law enforcement official that they demand a response from someone who held the same office."
      Others with lesser credentials made similar complaints. On MSNBC, Chuck Rosenberg, a former FBI official, called Barr's description of the IG report "absolutely false." Rosenberg said he was "disheartened" and "mystified" by Barr's statements. Appearing on the same newscast, John Heilemann, the veteran Washington political journalist, called Barr "a relentless political hack and a thug."
      Some on the political and legal left have gone so far as to suggest that Barr deserves to be impeached and removed from office. The Republican-majority Senate that confirmed Barr by a near party-line vote of 54-45 would never convict Barr even if the Democratic-majority House wanted to spend the time and political capital on impeaching him.
      Thus, Barr depends for office solely on the president, whose political bidding he gladly obliges. For Trump, it appears that his quoted wish has been fulfilled: "Where's my Roy Cohn?"

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