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After what seemed to be a done deal following a relatively smooth public hearing last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee now has delayed until February 7 the vote to confirm William Barr, President Trump’s nominee for attorney general. The reason, according to news reports, is lingering concerns about how Trump’s incoming attorney general would manage the investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, which is soon expected to conclude.
Despite Barr’s repeated assurances that he will follow Justice Department rules in his handling of Mueller’s final report, as well as a pledge to resist any attempted interference by the White House, Democrats on the committee remain unconvinced. “[Barr’s] answer was not particularly reassuring or clear as to the public disclosure of the Mueller report,” Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell earlier this week.
Democrats also have accused Barr of bias against the Mueller investigation based on a detailed memo he authored last year that objected to the special counsel’s reported interest in whether President Trump obstructed justice. Some have suggested Barr should recuse himself from the investigation, which would be a repeat of a terrible mistake made by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions in 2017.
The committee’s vote is scheduled to take place one day before acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker testifies in front of the House Judiciary Committee on a number of topics, including the Mueller probe; Trump foes claim Whitaker should have recused himself from oversight of the investigation based on some of his past comments, even though a Justice Department ethics review cleared him of any conflicts.
This one-two punch has a purpose: To taint Barr’s impartiality and discredit his office on all matters related to Trump-Russia. Why? Because during his confirmation hearing, Barr agreed—at the behest of Republican senators—to begin his own inquiry into who, why, and how the FBI launched several investigations into Trump’s presidential campaign and, eventually, into the president himself.
As indictments unrelated to Trump-Russia collusion pile up, Republican lawmakers and Trump’s base increasingly are outraged that the culprits behind perhaps the biggest political scandal in American history remain untouched. Barr signaled that the good fortune of these scoundrels could soon take a dramatic shift under his stewardship.
A few days before Barr’s hearing, the New York Times reported that in May 2017, the FBI opened an investigation into the sitting U.S. president purportedly based on suspicions he was a Russian foreign agent. Then-acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe—whom the Times does not mention by name at any time in the 1,800 words it took to report this information—initiated the probe immediately after Trump fired his predecessor, James Comey.
McCabe was fired last year and now is under criminal investigation for lying to federal agents.
“The decision to investigate Trump himself was an aggressive move by FBI officials who were confronting the chaotic aftermath of the firing of Comey and enduring the president’s verbal assaults on the Russia investigation as a witch hunt,” according to the Times. Just days after McCabe opened the investigation into President Trump, it was handed over to Mueller’s team.
That news did not sit well with Republicans on Capitol Hill. A clearly-agitated Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) raised the matter with Barr during his opening comments, reading aloud the Times’ headline from its January 11 front-page bombshell. “Would you promise this committee to look into this and tell us whether or not…a counterintelligence investigation was opened up at the FBI against President Trump? Have you ever heard of such a thing in all the time you’ve been associated with the Department of Justice,” the committee chair asked the nominee.
Barr, the former attorney general for President George H. W. Bush, replied that he had never heard of such a situation.
Graham then ticked off a list of names tied to the scandal, including McCabe, Peter Strzok, Lisa Page, Bruce and Nellie Ohr, and Christopher Steele. He mentioned Fusion GPS and that its political opposition research in the form of the “dossier” was used as evidence to secure a FISA warrant to spy on Trump campaign aide Carter Page. Barr pledged to the committee that he would review whether the certification given to the FISA court by bad actors such as Comey and former acting Attorney General Sally Yates on the Page application was accurate. (The Justice Department’s inspector general is also reviewing potential FISA abuses related to the Page case.) Providing false information to the court is perjury.
The South Carolina Republican seems serious about his mission to clean up the Justice Department and hold people accountable. On Wednesday, he sent a letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray, demanding answers about the agency’s pre-dawn raid at the home of former Trump confidant Roger Stone and whether the arrest was leaked to CNN. (LOL) Wray has until February 5 to reply.
As Mueller’s work winds down and the public becomes increasingly weary of the sideshow that has yet to produce one charge related to collusion, Democrats, the media and NeverTrumpers are extremely nervous that their dependable cacophony of distraction in cries of “Trump-Russia collusion!” will be gone. Unless the final report produces some major bombshell about Trump or anyone in his orbit, Americans will re-examine what the purpose of this whole exercise was, and fume at the wasted time and money. Some will even question whether the political impartiality of that agency can be trusted again. Many will want answers and it appears as though Barr, in tandem with Senate Republicans, are set to deliver.
Barr could take immediate action once he’s confirmed, focusing on low-hanging fruit, including further declassification of the Page FISA application; the release of emails and texts between key Justice Department officials including Comey and McCabe; and any materials related to the interrogation of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. The testimony of witnesses who appeared before the congressional committee also should be made public, as requested last year by congressional Republicans.
Other materials of public interest include the initiating documents for Crossfire Hurricane, the FBI’s investigation into four Trump campaign aides—which Comey claimed he never saw—and any details about who at the FBI started the unprecedented counterintelligence and criminal investigation into a sitting U.S. president.
And while he’s at it, and before Mueller’s team is finished, Barr should begin a formal inquiry into why the special counsel’s office scrubbed the iPhones used by Peter Strzok and Lisa Page while they worked for Mueller for a brief time in 2017. The phones and the data contained on those devices are public property. Barr needs to find out why that information was not collected and archived since both FBI officials already were under scrutiny. Destroying potential evidence is a crime.
The enormousness of Barr’s task and the devastating consequences for those involved are now coming into clear view. The timing couldn’t be worse for Democrats and NeverTrump Republicans who are desperate to defeat Trump and the GOP in 2020. That’s why we can expect both parties to whip up more criticism of Barr over the next few months. One hopes he will resist that criticism—and both Trump and Graham need to reassure the new attorney general and the American public that his investigation will receive the same amount of protection that was afforded to the Mueller team.
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