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Barr Is Investigating The Investigators: Will He Find Wrongdoing Or Political Fuel?

President Trump and Attorney General William Barr attend an event at White House on Wednesday. Trump has empowered Barr to investigate the origins of the special counsel probe and reveal his findings.
Chip Somodevilla
Getty Images
President Trump and Attorney General William Barr attend an event at White House on Wednesday. Trump has empowered Barr to investigate the origins of the special counsel probe and reveal his findings.

Updated at 4:30 p.m. ET

President Trump has handed Attorney General William Barr the keys to the vault.

Trump has authorized Barr to "declassify, downgrade, or direct the declassification or downgrading of information or intelligence" related to the origins of the investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential campaign, according to an official order.

The White House says that will mean he can be freer to reveal wrongdoing if he finds it. Democrats call it a bid to scare up political "weapons."

The memo signaled how much Trump wants Barr to not only go ahead with the efforts he has discussed to review the early period of the inquiry — and officials' use of the law and their investigative powers — but to also get what Barr uncovers out into the open quickly.

Republicans say they got a burst of velocity from the report by special counsel Robert Mueller, which did not establish a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia's interference in the election, notwithstanding the contacts it did establish between Trump aides and Russians.

Mueller didn't take a position on whether to prosecute Trump for obstruction of Justice, so Barr did — and concluded the president wouldn't face any charges.

All this, in Trump's telling, amounts to an inoculation — not only in terms of the Russia imbroglio, but also against the wider questions raised about Trump's potential exposure to foreign leverage, or his finances or his business practices.

The president has said, for example, that he assumes Mueller looked at his tax returns, which he has never released — unlike many of his recent predecessors had. Accordingly, Trump further argues, Mueller concluded there was no wrongdoing to report on that front, which is why no mention was made in Mueller's report.

Mueller's report, in short, was a watershed for Trump, he argues: Having cooperated with it and made available documents and witnesses to investigators, the president has affirmed he has done nothing wrong and obviated the need for any more inquiries.

The president told Democrats this week there can't be two "tracks," in which they continue to investigate and also negotiate with him over infrastructure or other priorities.

Moreover, Trump says, it's now time for the pendulum to swing and for Barr to investigate the "crimes" the president said this week were committed by "the other side."

"I think it's very important for our country to find out what happened," Trump told reporters on Friday as he walked out to board Marine One.

Warning about "weaponization"

Democrats argue that Barr has squandered any credibility to be considered an independent officer within the administration.

They point to what they've called lies he told Congress, his refusal to cooperate with oversight and the way he handled the release of the Mueller report.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., calls the administration's actions a "cover-up," and House intelligence committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said Trump's order authorizing Barr to declassify what he learns about the Russia investigation is the latest part of it.

"While Trump stonewalls the public from learning the truth about his obstruction of justice, Trump and Barr conspire to weaponize law enforcement and classified information against their political enemies. The coverup has entered a new and dangerous phase. This is un-American," Schiff wrote.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., vice chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, warned that a zeal to release facts for political reasons could risk the sources and methods upon which national security officials rely.

"People risk their lives to gather the intelligence material that President Trump and Attorney General Barr are so eager to politicize," Warner said. "Selectively declassifying sources and methods in order to serve a political agenda will make it harder for the intelligence community to do their jobs protecting this country from those who wish to do us harm."

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said Barr would keep cognizant of this theme.

"I am confident that the attorney general will work with the [intelligence community] in accordance with the long-established standards to protect highly sensitive classified information that, if publicly released, would put our national security at risk," Coats said.

The man nobody knows

One problem with understanding all the back-and-forth is only a few insiders know for sure what Mueller did and didn't examine and what his findings therefore mean or don't mean about the broader questions for Trump.

All that's clear from Mueller's report is that he passed off a number of investigations to other agencies within the department, meaning that the issue of potential wrongdoing or charges is not settled.

The final appendix of the report describes 14 total spinoff cases, including a dozen that are fully redacted.

That means the prospect for more potential charges and more potential bad headlines for the White House over who knows how much longer — and who knows how much closer to Election Day next year.

Court cases also are progressing related to congressional subpoenas for Trump's banking and financial records, bringing them closer to the hands of Democratic investigators.

So Trump's order for Barr encourages him to plumb secret records to counterprogram when necessary and, more broadly, try to preserve the political momentum that supporters say they took from Mueller's findings.

The feds and "spying"

In the telling of Trump and his supporters, the Russia imbroglio is about "spying" by President Barack Obama's administration on Trump's campaign — "biased" conspirators abusing their powers to try to keep Trump from being elected.

"They tried to do a takedown," Trump said on Friday. "It can't happen."

The leaders of the Justice Department and the FBI have denied those allegations and sought to cool the politicians' language. Yes, they say, officials did surveil Trump aides who were in contact with foreigners but did so within the bounds of the law and as part of an investigation into a historic spike in "active measures" waged by Russia against the U.S.

Spying "is not the term I would use" to describe what the FBI does, Director Christopher Wray, told members of Congress this month.

But it's the term that Barr continues to use — along with Trump — casting the president, his campaign and his administration as the victims of what Trump calls "treason."

It isn't clear yet what else Barr and other officials inside the Justice Department may uncover about the early phase of the Russia investigation, which has already been the subject of intense attention by Congress and the press, but Barr and others may focus on a few key areas.

1. The use of confidential informants, specifically in the United Kingdom in the summer of 2016.

The Russia investigation began after an Australian diplomat notified the United States that a junior Trump campaign aide, George Papadopoulos, had revealed he was communicating with the Russian government about prospective help to Trump's campaign.

The FBI responded, in part, by using one or more confidential human sources to meet with Trump aides to try to find out more about what was taking place. If there was more to that story than is known today, expect to hear about it as part of the "spying" theme.

Barr has appointed U.S. Attorney John Durham apparently to look at this phase of the Russia case. It isn't clear whether that may mean there could be criminal charges or whether Durham may write a report of his own.

2. The use of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Officials sought, and received, a warrant from a judge in order to collect the communications of another junior Trump aide who met with Russians, Carter Page.

Much of the information used in the application came from the infamous Russia dossier compiled by the former British intelligence officer, Christopher Steele, whose work was underwritten by Democrats.

It was partly unverified when it appeared and, notwithstanding indications that the FBI might have stood up some of its claims, Mueller's report suggests that much of the dossier has been deflated or can't be proven.

Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz is working on a report about that chapter in this saga, and he could file a report this summer. Page has never been charged, and he and supporters argue his civil rights were violated.

The full story has never been clear — House intelligence committee Republicans and Mueller's office both were left with unanswered questions about Page's trip to Moscow and his contacts with Russians.

On this and other matters, there's no telling whether even an investigation of the investigation might provide an answer.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Philip Ewing is an election security editor with NPR's Washington Desk. He helps oversee coverage of election security, voting, disinformation, active measures and other issues. Ewing joined the Washington Desk from his previous role as NPR's national security editor, in which he helped direct coverage of the military, intelligence community, counterterrorism, veterans and more. He came to NPR in 2015 from Politico, where he was a Pentagon correspondent and defense editor. Previously, he served as managing editor of Military.com, and before that he covered the U.S. Navy for the Military Times newspapers.