Attorney General William Barr controversially claimed the previous administration of Barack Obama weaponized the national security state against President Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. Response to those charges was all-but universally panned.
On Tuesday, Barr told NBC News that “the greatest threat to our free system” was the “incumbent government[‘s]” use (i.e., the Obama’s administration’s use) of “the law enforcement agencies and the intelligence agencies, both to spy on political opponents, but also to use them in a way that could affect the outcome of the election.”
During that interview with Pete Williams, Barr elaborated on his previous public statements in which he dismissed the findings of Department of Justice (DOJ) Inspector General Michael Horowitz.
The Horowitz report thoroughly debunked long-running victimization narratives and conspiracy theories—pushed by the White House and its allies—that Trump’s campaign was spied on by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and later subject to additional law enforcement inquiries at the hands of then-special counsel Robert Mueller due to widespread political bias within the FBI’s ranks.
Those allegations were never factually supported and didn’t make much sense to anyone familiar with the FBI’s internal culture. Unsurprisingly, however, Horowitz did discover that several FBI agents exhibited and expressed pro-Trump bias—a rather direct corollary to the tawdry text messages of anti-Trump former FBI employees Peter Strzok and Lisa Page.
Barr trashed the OIG’s oversight work and said his handpicked prosecutor John Durham—infamous for burying evidence of CIA torture—would be the final authority on alleged out-of-control FBI rule-breaking and institutional bias.
University of Texas Law Professor Steve Vladeck criticized the topsy-turvy nature of Barr’s comments about his own watchdog.
“The whole reason why we _have_ Inspectors General is for cases in which there’s reason to doubt that political appointees can be fair decisionmakers,” he tweeted. “The Attorney General taking this position is proof only of why that independence is so important—and why this wasn’t up to him.”
Aside from the somewhat circular answer to Juvenal’s most famous question, critics also pointed to Barr’s seemingly internal inconsistency viz. the use of executive branch power to achieve political ends.
“If Barr were consistent, he would argue Obama using the FBI to interfere with the election (didn’t happen) is fine just like Trump extorting Ukraine is fine, because the president can do what he wants.” The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer said. ”That’s not his position. His position is *Trump* can do whatever he wants.”
Vladeck also weighed in on the hypocrisy angle:
Barr: It's deeply offensive to our civil liberties for a presidential administration to investigate its potential successors and/or try to interfere in an election.
Also Barr: The President was absolutely within his rights to ask Ukraine for help digging up dirt on the Bidens.
— Steve Vladeck (@steve_vladeck) December 10, 2019
The attorney general was also called out by a group of attorneys who typically identify as conservative and/or libertarian—essentially one-time ideological allies for Barr, who was recently feted by the arch-conservative Federalist Society, a group long-believed amenable to libertarian thought.
“Bill Barr has grossly mischaracterized and subverted the findings of the IG investigation report addressing the FBI investigation into Russian interference in our 2016 election,” said former U.S. Attorney Donald Ayer, a member of Checks & Balances.
Barr later re-upped his criticism of Horowitz’s report at event sponsored by the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday afternoon:
AG William Barr, speaking at an event hosted by @WSJ , just doubled-down on his criticism of the Russia investigation, calling it a "travesty."
“There were many abuses, and that’s by far the most important part of the [inspector general] report," Barr said.
— Ryan Barber (@cryanbarber) December 10, 2019
“If you actually spent time looking at what happened, I think you’d be appalled,” Barr said during the event—referring to issues with Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant applications which Horowitz faulted as unacceptable but ultimately inconsequential.
“That’s what Durham is investigating,” Barr said. “Durham’s scope is much broader than IG.”
Some of the usual suspects tended to doubt that even Durham was sacrosanct in Barr’s estimation.
Former FBI director James Comey mused that were Durham to also come up short, he might find himself on the other end of a Barr-initiated investigation as well.
”I wish I was joking,” Comey said.
[Image via Win McNamee/Getty Images]