Multiple news agencies reported Monday that Attorney General William P. Barr has had extensive personal involvement in the Justice Department’s investigations into the origins of the probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
That involvement — including trips abroad for personal meetings with foreign officials — is certainly “fairly unorthodox,” in the words of a former Justice Department official. Is it also inappropriate?
After all, part of an attorney general’s job is to liaise with foreign counterparts. It’s not unusual to have in-person meetings, especially at the beginning of an attorney general’s tenure, both to meet and greet and to discuss mutual priorities.
Moreover, Barr is the head of the Justice Department. No department business is beyond his concern. Unlike, say, the barriers that are supposed to stand between the White House and the Justice Department, there is no out-of-bounds area for the department’s political appointees, much less the attorney general.
Thus, during Barr’s first tenure as attorney general, he personally argued a case in the Supreme Court, a task normally reserved to the solicitor general and his or her assistants. No one took him to task for weeding in the solicitor general’s garden.
So what, if anything, might be worrisome about Barr’s conduct now?
Well, plenty. For starters, while attorneys general do meet with foreign officials to cement working relationships and even communicate shared general priorities, transatlantic trips to ask for help on an individual investigation are beyond rare. It would even be unusual for an attorney general to pick up the phone to call a counterpart about an individual case.
Barr’s personal globe-trotting mission necessarily communicates that this one matter — of all the ongoing business of the Justice Department — is an unsurpassed priority of the department.
Second and relatedly, Barr already has appointed a respected U.S. attorney, John Durham, to undertake the investigation. Many Justice Department investigations require cooperation with our most important foreign friends, and there are established channels of communication for Durham to work through if he needs help from intelligence agencies of other countries.
Third, the attorney general’s personal involvement compromises the whole idea of Durham’s independence. How is Durham supposed to ignore the bear riding piggyback on his shoulders?
That would be so even if the attorney general had no particular prejudice or bias with respect to the investigation. But the next problem, larger still, is that this attorney general brings strongly held preconceptions into an investigation that is supposed to be free of them.
Barr has repeatedly expressed suspicions of impropriety in the initiation of the Russia probe, including his inflammatory suggestion that the probe constituted “spying” on the Trump campaign.
It is hard not to conclude that Barr’s driving motivation is to turn up some nefarious aspect to the probe’s origins, backed by the imprimatur of a foreign government. And of course, nothing would please President Trump more.
Which brings us to the next big problem with Barr’s unusual campaign. Its animating idea, in fact obsession, is simply wacky. No one has ever shown any satisfactory basis for the various conspiracy theories that Trump defenders have trotted out to argue that the investigation into Russian meddling was rotten at the core.
Indeed, the whole enterprise of trying to discredit the probe is half-cocked. The revelations in the Mueller report of extensive efforts by the Russian government to interfere in the 2016 election are beyond dispute and extraordinarily grave. It is fortunate that the FBI undertook the probe with the seriousness it merited.
Finally, the attorney general has not simply inserted himself into Durham’s probe. He has entered into a working partnership with Trump. Thus, we learned that the president’s recent call to the Australian prime minister to urge him to assist Barr apparently came at Barr’s urging. And again, that Barr asked Trump to contact other countries to ask them to introduce the attorney general and Durham to appropriate officials.
The president should not be within a million miles of this probe. Barr’s improper tag-team approach links the attorney general to Trump’s goal of smearing anyone involved in investigating him and can only further undermine public confidence in the department’s evenhandedness.
The overall rule that Barr has broken isn’t found in so many words in the Code of Federal Regulations or the Department of Justice Manual. But it’s the first rule for any attorney general: the rule of sound judgment and impartial apolitical administration of justice.