In retrospect, the debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on October 9, 2016 brought us one of the most important moments of the presidential campaign.
Trump announced that if he was elected president, he would instruct his attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Clinton. That statement rang alarm bells for anyone with a glimmer of understanding about how our justice system is supposed to work. The idea that a president could instruct his attorney general to investigate a political opponent is anathema to those who value our democratic norms.
In a testament to how the current president has normalized the destruction of those norms, we aren’t hearing the kind of public outcry one would expect when he follows through on that promise. It’s true that there hasn’t been a special prosecutor appointed to investigate Clinton, but there can be no doubt that Trump is seeking revenge against anyone involved in the Trump-Russia investigation by firing them, enlisting the help of right wing media to smear their reputations, and sometimes even opening criminal investigations against them.
Before William Barr became Trump’s attorney general, he signaled that he would be willing to go along with Trump’s threat to use our justice system to go after the president’s opponents. Back in November 2017, he told the New York Times’ Peter Baker that, “there is nothing inherently wrong about a president calling for an investigation.” When asked by Senator Kamala Harris whether the president or anyone in the While House has asked or suggested that he open an investigation of anyone, Barr refused to answer.
We recently learned that Barr has assigned U.S. Attorney John Durham the task of examining the origins of the Trump-Russia probe. Conservative media is using the appointment of Durham to dig up a particularly malicious rumor about former FBI legal counsel James Baker.
During congressional testimony last October, Baker refused to answer questions about his contacts with Mother Jones reporter David Corn, noting that, as FBI legal counsel, he was the subject of a leak investigation being conducted by Durham. Due to Corn’s involvement in writing about the Steele dossier, conspiracy theories began to fly. In refuting the claims, Corn summarized what’s been going on.
Jordan and Meadows have gone to town with this, writing Durham this week and demanding information on the investigation of Baker. And right-wing media outlets have pounced on this as yet another sign of a deceitful get-Trump cabal within the FBI. Following the lead of Jordan and Meadows, Byron York, in the conservative Washington Examiner, asserted that the leak under investigation by Durham “appeared to be dossier-related.” York claimed that the Baker testimony “revealing the criminal investigation is a new and important part of the story of the FBI’s handling of the Trump-Russia investigation.”…
Fox News has especially gone batty over this. In a “Hannity Watch” on the “Deep State,” Fox News’ Sean Hannity breathlessly declared the Baker news “a major development” and exclaimed, “Baker has long faced scrutiny over his ties to Mother Jones reporter David Corn. Remember, Corn was the first journalist to report the existence of Christopher Steele’s dirty dossier in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election.” Laura Ingraham huffed, “James Baker himself is under investigation for media leaks against President Trump. It turns out he was in regular contact with Mother Jones leftist writer David Corn. Are they still publishing? Well, it’s just a coincidence, I’m sure. Remember, Jones was the first to report on that phony Steele dossier—you know, the thing that was a predicate used to start the entire Trump-Russia probe.”
It is especially important to note Ingraham’s claim that the Steele dossier was “a predicate used to start the entire Trump-Russia probe.” That is the lie that is consistently being propagated by Trump’s enablers, even though it has been documented over and over again (including by Mueller) that the actual predicate was the Papadopoulos revelation to an Australian diplomat that “the Trump Campaign had received indications from the Russian government that it could assist the Campaign through the anonymous release of information that would be damaging to Hillary Clinton.” Intelligence officials learned about that in late July 2016 and almost immediately opened the investigation, while they didn’t receive the Steele dossier until mid-September.
The claims that Corn received the Steele dossier from Baker and that the latter is under investigation for leaking it to the press have been completely debunked. But just as right-wing media continues the lie about the origins of the Trump-Russia investigation, the lies about Baker are out there in the ether now and will continue to spread among Trump’s enablers.
So Baker has joined the ranks of people like James Comey, John Brennan, Andrew McCabe, Peter Strzok, Bruce Ohr, Lisa Page, Andrew Weissmann, and yes, even Robert Mueller in having their careers either tarnished or ended by smears emanating from the Trump administration. Not only does that mean that, as Natasha Bertrand documented, expertise in Russian money laundering and organized crime has been effectively eliminated from the FBI, it is also the case that anyone who was part of the small group having to make the unprecedented call to investigate a president has been maligned—by that president.
Even with all of that, Trump and Barr aren’t done yet. The investigation by Durham will be the fourth that this administration has undertaken against the investigators. As Barbara McQuade suggests, that will have a chilling effect on the FBI, which opens this country up to other national security threats.
But equally chilling is the fact that Donald Trump, with an assist from William Barr, is making good on his promise from the presidential debates: he is using the Justice Department to investigate and smear anyone he deems to be a threat. That is why Kamala Harris’s line of questioning with Barr was so important. Beyond conspiracies with Russians and obstruction, it is a threat to our democracy and should be an impeachable offense.