- Attorney General William Barr defended President Donald Trump’s characterization of the Russia investigation as a “witch hunt” in a new Fox News interview this week.
- When host Bill Hemmer asked Barr if he’s comfortable labelling the Russia probe a witch hunt, Barr replied, “I use what words I use … but I think if I had been falsely accused, I’d be comfortable saying it was a witch hunt.”
- Barr also told Fox News he’s investing significant resources into finding out if “government officials abused their power and put their thumb on the scale” when launching the Russia probe.
- In a separate interview with the Wall Street Journal, Barr doubled down on his previous claims that the FBI was “spying” on the Trump campaign during the 2016 election. “Government power was used to spy on American citizens,” Barr said.
- The interviews added to a growing list of examples that critics say are demonstrative of how Barr is acting more as the president’s defence lawyer than as the country’s top law enforcement officer.
- Read more stories like this on Business Insider’s homepage.
Since he took over as attorney general, William Barr has been at the center of controversy after controversy when it related to his oversight of the FBI’s Russia investigation, the special counsel Robert Mueller, and his repeated efforts to shield President Donald Trump from public scrutiny.
This week marked another flashpoint, when Barr made some telling comments to Fox News and The Wall Street Journal, many of which fuelled speculation that he is acting more as the president’s defence lawyer than as the top law enforcement officer in the US.
In the new interview with Fox News, Barr gave a full throated defence of the president’s baseless accusation that Mueller was on a “witch hunt” against him and his associates.
During his confirmation hearing earlier this year, Barr told the Senate Judiciary Committee he trusted Mueller’s judgment and added that he did not believe the special counsel would be involved in a witch hunt.
But the attorney general changed his tune in a big way this week, telling Fox News host Bill Hemmer that Trump was justified in characterising the investigation as a politically motivated fishing expedition.
“He was saying he was innocent and that he was being falsely accused,” Barr said of the president. “And if you’re falsely accused, you would think that something was a witch hunt.”
Barr also told Fox he’s investing significant resources into finding out whether “government officials abused their power and put their thumb on the scale” when launching the Russia probe. “A lot of the answers have been inadequate and some of the explanations I’ve gotten don’t hang together,” he said. “In a sense, I have more questions today than I did when I first started.”
Barr added that Trump has been investigated for “conspiring with the Russians, and we now know that was simply false.” When Hemmer asked Barr if he’s comfortable labelling the Russia probe a witch hunt, Barr replied, “I use what words I use … but I think if I had been falsely accused, I’d be comfortable saying it was a witch hunt.”
Meanwhile, in a separate interview with The Journal, Barr doubled down on his previous claims that the FBI was “spying” on the Trump campaign during the 2016 election.
“Government power was used to spy on American citizens,” Barr told The Journal. “I can’t imagine any world where we wouldn’t take a look and make sure that was done properly.”
There is no evidence to date that the FBI or the Justice Department broke protocol when conducting the Russia investigation or seeking a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant against Trump aide Carter Page.
But there are now three separate entities who have been tasked with investigating alleged misconduct and corruption at both agencies: the DOJ’s Office of the Inspector General, and US attorneys John Huber and John Durham.
How the Russia investigation started, and how Barr has twisted Mueller’s findings
In July 2016, WikiLeaks published the first of several troves of hacked Democratic National Committee emails that had been stolen by the Russian government.
Following the leak, the Australian government notified the FBI that George Papadopoulos, then a Trump campaign foreign policy aide, boasted a few months earlier to an Australian diplomat that Russia had dirt on the Hillary Clinton campaign in the form of “thousands” of emails.
The tip prompted the FBI to open an inquiry into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and whether anyone associated with the Trump campaign secretly worked with Moscow to help tilt the race in his favour.
Meanwhile, when Trump fired FBI director James Comey in May 2017, the move sparked significant concern among senior officials that the president was working on behalf of the Russian government. After Comey’s firing, the bureau also launched a criminal investigation into whether Trump obstructed justice.
Mueller’s final report said the Russia investigation did not establish that members of the campaign coordinated with Russia during the election.
But prosecutors prefaced that statement with a notable caveat: “The investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and … the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts.”
The special counsel declined to make a “traditional prosecutorial judgment” on whether Trump obstructed justice, citing DOJ guidelines that say a sitting president cannot be indicted.
But his team laid out an extensive roadmap of evidence against Trump, adding, “If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state … Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment.”
Instead of releasing Mueller’s report when it was submitted to him, Barr opted to put out a four-page summary of his “principal conclusions” about Mueller’s findings. The letter highlighted Mueller’s conclusion that there wasn’t enough evidence to bring a criminal conspiracy charge against Trump or anyone on his campaign. It also said Mueller declined to make a judgment on the obstruction question.
The letter left out the extensive details Mueller laid out on the myriad contacts Trump associates had with Russians, and Trump’s concerted efforts to hamper the resulting investigation.
Mueller indicated in the report that it was up to Congress to investigate the obstruction question further. But Barr took it upon himself to announce, before the report was released, that Trump had not committed an obstruction offence.
Earlier this month, it surfaced that Mueller sent two letters to Barr expressing frustration with the way the attorney general handled the report. One was sent on March 25, one day after Barr released his summary of the report. The second was sent on March 27.
In the March 27 letter, Mueller said he was dissatisfied with the fact that Barr’s letter “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance of this Office’s work and conclusions.”
“We communicated that concern to the Department on the morning of March 25,” Mueller continued. “There is now public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation. This threatens to undermine a central purpose for which the Department appointed the Special Counsel: to assure full public confidence in the outcome of the investigations.”
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