William Barr gave his first interview since becoming attorney general, and it should come as no surprise that it was granted to Fox News. Lis Power recently documented that his client (Trump) has given 12 interviews so far in 2019, eleven of which have been with Fox. When you want to avoid difficult questions, as Barr demonstrated when he refused to be questioned by lawyers for the House Judiciary Committee, the right-wing propaganda network is a safe place to go.
The focus of the interview was on Barr’s commitment to investigate the origins of the Trump-Russia probe. In that regard, he made his intentions clear.
Bill Barr does Fox interview, making crystal clear he’s putting the Justice Department 100% behind Trump’s lawlessness. pic.twitter.com/Ioi8vQ6pvc
— Josh Marshall (@joshtpm) May 17, 2019
He said that “we should be worried about whether government officials abused their power and put their thumb on the scale.” What is truly bizarre about that statement is that, if government officials “put their thumb on the scale,” they were horribly inept, because most of what we know about their investigation came out after Donald Trump was elected. The rational explanation is that they did everything in their power to avoid putting their thumb on the scale. But obviously Barr isn’t interested in rational answers to his questions.
For an interview that focused on Barr’s examination of the origins of the Trump-Russia investigation, one of Bill Hemmer’s questions seemed to come from out of the blue.
Barr suggests Comey, Clapper, Brennan were plotting against President Trump. pic.twitter.com/tyZA3MZoyC
— Josh Marshall (@joshtpm) May 17, 2019
Hemmer asks: “In the period of time between election day and the inauguration, did anyone in government or intelligence take action to justify their decisions?” The first time I saw that clip I had trouble understanding what he was asking. What does it mean to take action to justify a decision? What action and what decision? Why is Hemmer asking about the transition period in the midst of questions about the origins of the Trump-Russia investigation, which preceded the election by months?
Barr’s response answers some of those questions and raises the probability that this particular line of inquiry was planted by the attorney general or his staff. Barr talks about the meeting on January 6, 2017 where intelligence officials briefed the president-elect on what they had learned about Russia’s attempt to intervene in the election. After the briefing, then-FBI Director James Comey met privately with Trump to tell him about the Steele dossier. Word of that briefing leaked and, later that day, BuzzFeed published the dossier.
It isn’t totally clear why Barr would want to point the finger at a meeting that occurred almost six months after the Trump-Russia investigation was launched. But we can get some idea by looking at the reaction to his tip in conservative media. Jerry Dunleavy at the Washington Examiner was the first out of the gate write about it.
The inference seems to be that someone involved with the Trump-Russia investigation leaked the Steele dossier to the press, which is what led BuzzFeed to publish it.
The allegation that Russia had possible compromising information on Trump was leaked by unknown persons to the press and led to the dossier being published by BuzzFeed just a few days later.
The facts are that, after discussing his findings with the FBI, Christopher Steele became concerned when the New York Times published an article on October 31, 2016 titled, “Investigating Donald Trump, FBI Sees No Clear Link to Russia.” At that point, Steele started talking to the media (i.e., leaking his dossier), which is why the FBI fired him.
Beyond that, there is an attempt to suggest that either (1) Comey shouldn’t have briefed Trump about the Steele dossier, or (2) that the briefing could be compared to how J. Edgar Hoover blackmailed public officials.
Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani called Comey a “jackass” over his handling of the dossier and also compared Comey to J. Edgar Hoover, the first director of the FBI. Giuliani criticized Comey’s decision to tell Trump about the claims in the dossier — like allegations related to prostitutes in a hotel room in Moscow — during their private discussion in January 2017.
“That whole thing with going up to Trump and telling him about the Steele dossier … that wasn’t being a Hoover?” Giuliani asked rhetorically.
On the question of whether Comey should have briefed Trump, we hear constant complaints from the president about what the Obama administration didn’t do in regards to Russian interference and why he wasn’t briefed. As a matter of fact, he tweeted a complaint along those lines on Friday in response to news about Michael Flynn.
It is true that during an interview with Michael Isikoff, former FBI Legal Counsel James Baker said that, during discussions about whether to brief Trump about the dossier, they were concerned that the president-elect’s reaction to the information might be to compare it to Hoover’s blackmailing of public officials. But that was weighed against their concern that the information was about to become public and how Trump would react if they didn’t warn him.
Going back to the interview with Barr, we don’t know if the attorney general actually thinks that someone in the FBI leaked the Steele dossier. We also don’t know if he believes that the FBI shouldn’t have warned the president-elect about it—or even worse—if he thinks that the warning was an attempt to blackmail Trump. We should all hope that the attorney general hasn’t gone to those depths in swallowing conspiracy theories. But Barr teed all of that and more up during his interview on Fox News, and now Trump’s enablers in the right-wing media will run with it for days.