Bill Barr’s Witch Hunt

Attorney General Bill Barr and U.S. Attorney John Durham are traveling around the world trying to get foreign governments to give credence to a conspiracy theory that they believe will undermine the FBI’s decision to open an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. This effort is an abuse of power, purely designed to help President Donald Trump politically. The fact is, it would have been malpractice if the FBI had not opened its investigation in the summer of 2016.

Barr and Durham’s quixotic journey has resulted in the chief law enforcement officer of the United States traveling to Italy to review deposition tapes, pressing the United Kingdom for cooperation, and Trump himself pressuring the Australian prime minister for assistance in the matter. The conspiracy theory doesn’t contest the findings of the Mueller investigation, instead, it aims to prove that the trigger for the FBI launching its original inquiry into Russian interference was, in fact, a set up.

For months, Trump and his supporters pushed the idea that the Steele dossier was the impetus for the FBI to launch its investigation into Russian interference and whether the Trump campaign was playing any role in it. Their strategy was to discredit Christopher Steele, the former MI6 agent and author of the now-famous dossier, and thereby throw the entire U.S. investigation into question. But the Steele dossier is not what prompted the FBI to start its investigation. Instead, it was the activities of Trump campaign foreign policy advisor George Papadopoulos.

In the spring of 2016, Papadopoulos connected with a London-based Maltese professor with longstanding Russia ties named Joseph Mifsud. Mifsud had just returned from a trip to Moscow in April of 2016 when he met with Papadopoulos and informed him that the Russian government had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton “in the form of thousands of emails.”

Shortly after his conversation with Mifsud, in May 2016 Papadopoulos met with Australia’s top diplomat in London for a few drinks. It was there that Papadopoulos told the diplomat what Mifsud had told him about the Russian “dirt” on Clinton. Two months later, in July, Australia passed this information to the FBI. And this, according to the Mueller report, was what prompted the FBI on July 31, 2016 to “open an investigation into whether individuals associated with the Trump Campaign were coordinating with the Russian government in its interference activities.”

The conspiracy theory that Barr appears to be chasing down, is similar to one that Papadopoulos himself has been advocating. It alleges that Russian interference in 2016 was all a set-up and that Mifsud was a Western agent. The theory advances the idea that Trump isn’t the beneficiary of foreign interference— he’s a victim of it.  And if Barr can just disprove the validity of the Papadopoulos tip, then the entire legitimacy of the Mueller investigation falls apart.

In reality, there were so many suspicious links between the Trump campaign and Russia, and so many strong indications of Russian interference in the 2016 election, it would have been truly irresponsible of the FBI not to have initiated an investigation – with or without the Papadopoulos story. The Russia investigation wasn’t the result of one single tip — but the product of trained U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials properly reacting to a real threat.

First, there were multiple, separate warnings from allied intelligence agencies to U.S. officials about Russia’s relationship with the Trump campaign. Beginning in late 2015 and going at least through the summer of 2016, the United Kingdom, Germany, Estonia, Poland, the Netherlands and France all informed U.S. officials about interactions between Trump associates and Russians.

Second, an alarming number of figures known to U.S. law enforcement to have Russian links joined the Trump campaign in rapid succession. Michael Flynn joined the campaign as Trump’s national security advisor in February 2016, just two months after he was paid $45,000 to speak at an RT gala in Moscow where he sat next to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Considering Flynn was the former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), this behavior surely would have caught the U.S. Intelligence Community’s attention, especially once he joined the campaign. Carter Page, who years earlier had allegedly been recruited by Russian spies in New York and interviewed by the FBI about it, joined the campaign as a foreign policy aide in March 2016. Paul Manafort, who would eventually become campaign chairman, joined on March 28, 2016. Manafort had spent years working for pro-Russian Ukrainian oligarchs and had been interviewed by the FBI reportedly about this work in 2013 and 2014.

Third, Trump’s own behavior would have raised red flags for law enforcement and intelligence agencies. During the campaign, Trump was up front about wanting Russia’s help, publicly calling for Russia to hack his opponent even after it was known that Russia was interfering in the election. He was also pursuing a lucrative business deal in Moscow, which he lied to the American people about, claiming he had “nothing to do with Russia” .

Fourth, the 2016 election was being attacked by Russian military officers, and this necessitated an investigation. Public reports of Russia’s hacking of the DNC go back to June 14, 2016, and Wikileaks began releasing the stolen emails from the DNC on July 22, 2016. Trump was even made aware in August, during his first intelligence briefing as the Republican nominee, that Russia would probably try to spy on his campaign, and he and his campaign were advised to contact the FBI about anything suspicious.

Fifth, the so-called “deep state” plot hinged on the idea that launching an investigation into Trump would damage his campaign — but the investigation wasn’t revealed until after Trump had won. FBI Director James Comey publicly revealed the investigation on March 20, 2017, months after Trump had been elected and inaugurated. And it wasn’t until after Trump had fired Comey and invited the Russian foreign minister into the Oval Office to laugh about relieving the pressure of the Russia investigation that the FBI opened another investigation into Trump himself, seeking to determine “whether he had been working on behalf of Russia against American interests.”

With all of this happening in such short order, it would have been unthinkable for the FBI and U.S. intelligence agencies not to have investigated the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.

So, why is the attorney general, along with a hand-picked U.S. Attorney, personally chasing down leads around the globe in an effort to undermine U.S. law enforcement? Even for the most serious crimes, the attorney general does not typically fly to a foreign country just to review a video tape of a deposition.

The answer is that this doesn’t have anything to do with law enforcement at all. This entire effort is meant to do one thing: Provide fodder for Trump’s conspiracy theories about the origins and legitimacy of the Russia investigation. The goal of these investigations is to create the appearance of impropriety and to support the false claims that the Mueller probe and its findings were an illegitimate, partisan endeavor advanced by the “deep state.”

For years, Trump and his team have been advancing conspiracy theories along these lines. As each successive version is debunked, the argument gets continually reshaped, each version more outlandish than the prior one. It first began with Steele and claiming he duped the FBI into opening an investigation. Then it shifted the blame to a cabal of senior FBI agents surrounding then-FBI Director Comey who opposed Trump and conspired to open an investigation into him to damage his campaign. After that, the idea was that that then-CIA Director John Brennan personally orchestrated the investigation in an effort to get Clinton elected so that he could keep his job.

There is, however, one major difference between the current push and previous efforts. The man making the case now isn’t a talking head or congressman appearing on Fox News. It’s America’s chief law enforcement officer using the full power of the U.S. government to pressure foreign governments to engage in investigations designed to politically benefit Trump. If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is exactly what Trump tried to do in the phone call with the Ukrainian president that is now at the heart of the impeachment proceedings. Trump even asked the Ukrainian president to work with Barr on his politically motivated investigations, yet Barr has refused to recuse himself from related cases, calling into question the impartiality of the government’s investigation.

The president of the United States and his attorney general are both working to leverage America’s relationships with its allies to advance conspiracy theories as part of an ongoing political campaign. This is a gross abuse of power. Both should go.

Image: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

 

About the Author(s)

James Lamond

Managing Director of the Moscow Project and a Senior Policy Adviser at the Center for American Progress.

Talia Dessel

Research analyst at the Center for American Progress