Last May, Attorney General William Barr assigned U.S. Attorney John Durham the task of investigating the origins of the Trump-Russia probe. Demonstrating that he is either the world’s worst micromanager or that he doesn’t trust Durham, Barr has inserted himself into the investigation as he traveled the globe with his appointee to pressure foreign governments into supporting conspiracy theories about how the probe began.
According to Natasha Bertrand and Daniel Lipman, the attorney general has a target for his inquiries: former CIA Director John Brennan. They speculate that it is Trump’s personal vendetta against Brennan that is fueling that focus.
Trump, meanwhile, has become “obsessed” with Brennan, who frequently gets under the president’s skin by publicly questioning his mental acuity and fitness for office, according to a former White House official. On Brennan, “it was always, ‘he’s an idiot, he’s a crook, we ought to investigate him,’” this person said, characterizing Trump’s outbursts.
Since the beginning of his presidency, Trump has also repeatedly attacked Brennan publicly, tweeting about the former CIA director more than two dozen times. He’s questioned Brennan’s mental acuity and called him a liar, a leaker and blamed him for having “detailed knowledge of the (phony) Dossier,” a reference to the raw intelligence reports on Trump’s alleged Russia ties by British former MI-6 officer Christopher Steele. He also tried to unilaterally strip Brennan of his security clearance—a process the White House reportedly never went through with — and urged the House to call him in for questioning.
That certainly fits what we know about the president’s pattern of seeking vengeance against anyone who criticizes him. But there’s also the fact that, as I wrote over a year ago, Trump has more reason to be concerned about the dossier complied by Brennan than the one written by Christopher Steele.
Back in the summer of 2017, several Washington Post reporters documented how the Obama administration responded to the fact that Russia was interfering in the 2016 election. It was mostly used as fodder to criticize the former president for not acting more forcefully. But in the opening, they chronicle how the whole investigation began.
Early last August, an envelope with extraordinary handling restrictions arrived at the White House. Sent by courier from the CIA, it carried “eyes only” instructions that its contents be shown to just four people: President Barack Obama and three senior aides.
Inside was an intelligence bombshell, a report drawn from sourcing deep inside the Russian government that detailed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s direct involvement in a cyber campaign to disrupt and discredit the U.S. presidential race.
But it went further. The intelligence captured Putin’s specific instructions on the operation’s audacious objectives — defeat or at least damage the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and help elect her opponent, Donald Trump.
One of the authors of that piece, Greg Miller, went on to write a book titled The Apprentice: Trump, Russia and the Subversion of American Democracy. In it, he documented that Brennan had spent two days compiling the contents of what was contained in that envelope by “reviewing a small mountain of material on Russia.” What he found was “extraordinary intelligence that had surfaced in late July and reached deep inside the Kremlin, showing that Putin was himself directing an ‘active measures’ operation aimed not only at disrupting the U.S. presidential race but electing Trump.”
What happened next is that the FBI launched the counterintelligence investigation that would later become the Mueller probe, while the CIA set up a task force to collect more intelligence on Russia. That is because the role of each agency is different, as Bertrand and Lipman report.
Brennan allies and skeptics of the Durham investigation note that the CIA played no role in the probe involving Americans, and was narrowly focused on determining Russian President Vladimir Putin’s motivations and how the Kremlin was carrying out its election attack in 2016.
To the extent that Barr is targeting Brennan, this is where his intentions seem to overlap with the debunked conspiracy theories that Trump is promoting with the Ukrainians. He seems to be attempting to undermine the role played by the CIA in assessing Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and Putin’s motivations for doing so.
It is important to keep in mind that this goes against investigations completed, not only by Mueller, but by the Senate Intelligence Committee and, as Natasha Bertrand reported, one completed by Mike Pompeo when he was CIA director.
Just after Pompeo took over as CIA director in 2017, he conducted a personal review of the CIA’s findings, grilling analysts on their conclusions in a challenging and at times combative interview, these people said. He ultimately found no evidence of any wrongdoing, or that the analysts had been under political pressure to produce their findings.
In other words, no one who has investigated any of this has found evidence to question the conclusions reached by John Brennan and the CIA. The fact that the attorney general persists with his own inquiry indicates that he is the one conducting a witch hunt.