William Barr
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Last week William Barr announced that he would resign as attorney general effective Wednesday. In what might be his final interview on the job, the 70-year-old talked to Wall Street Journal opinion columnist Kimberley Strassel. While Barr used the opportunity to suggest that his defense of Donald Trump and associates was actually part of his nonpartisan approach to justice (an absurd claim), he dropped a bombshell about his efforts to undermine the origins of the Trump-Russia investigation. 

Barr told Strassel that he didn’t “see any sign of improper CIA activity” or “foreign government activity before July 2016. The CIA stayed in its lane.” Strassel attempted to diminish that revelation by suggesting that this is something Barr knew all along. But a look at the evidence suggests otherwise.

Less than a month after Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report was released publicly in March 2019, Barr announced that he had assigned John Durham—the U.S. Attorney for the District of Connecticut—to investigate the origins of the Trump-Russia probe. An entire conspiracy theory developed on the right about how Obama’s CIA Director John Brennan colluded with foreign governments to concoct the “Russian hoax.” Here is what Margot Cleveland wrote about that at The Federalist in an article titled: “All The Russia Collusion Clues Are Beginning To Point Back To John Brennan.”

The evidence suggests that the CIA and intelligence community—including potentially the intelligence communities of the UK, Italy, and Australia—created the contacts and interactions [between Russian agents and the Trump campaign] that they then reported to the FBI as suspicious…

These are the questions Barr and Durham should be asking themselves to arrive at the bottom line: Were the Russia connections contrived by the CIA, and was Brennan the plotter-in-chief hoping to prevent a President Trump—or to destroy him later?

Other articles at right-wing news outlets amplified those claims. For example:

  • “The Brennan Dossier: All About a Prime Mover of Russiagate” by Aaron Maté at RealClearPolitics,
  • “Durham’s On the Way” by R. Emmett Tyrrell at the American Spectator, and
  • “John Durham investigation intensifies focus on John Brennan” by Jerry Dunleavy at the Washington Examiner.

In the fall of 2019, Barr and Durham gave credence to the conspiracy theories by traveling to the UK and Italy to investigate claims that the CIA fabricated the “Russian hoax.” It became clear that Brennan was, in fact, at the center of Durham’s investigation.

The truth is that Brennan has been very open about his role in the origins of the Trump-Russia investigation.

“I encountered and am aware of information and intelligence that revealed contacts and interactions between Russian officials and U.S. persons involved in the Trump campaign that I was concerned about,” he told Congress in May 2017. That information, Brennan added, “raised concerns in my mind about whether or not those individuals were cooperating with the Russians,” which then “served as the basis for the FBI investigation to determine whether such collusion-cooperation occurred.”

That aligns with what journalist Greg Miller wrote in his 2018 book, The Apprentice: Trump, Russia and the Subversion of American Democracy, as well as what the Washington Post reported in June 2017 about the Obama administration’s handling of Russian interference in the 2016 election. According to the latter, Brennan prepared his own dossier, which was delivered directly to the White House.

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.

While Republicans and right-wing media have always been obsessed with the so-called “Steele dossier” and its role in the origins of the Trump-Russia probe, those documents weren’t delivered to the FBI team investigating Russian interference until September 2016, almost a full two months after the probe began. It was Brennan’s dossier that alerted the intelligence community that, not only was Russia attempting to interfere in the election, but that Moscow was doing so to defeat Hillary Clinton and elect Donald Trump.

It is therefore significant that Barr basically exonerated Brennan in his Strassel interview. He claimed that Durham’s focus will be on the FBI agents involved in Crossfire Hurricane, the name given to the agency’s investigation. But even there, he is tamping down expectations.

The attorney general also hopes people remember that orange jumpsuits aren’t the only measure of misconduct. It frustrates him that the political class these days frequently plays “the criminal card,” obsessively focused on “who is going to jail, who is getting indicted.”…One danger of the focus on criminal charges is that it ends up excusing a vast range of contemptible or abusive behavior that doesn’t reach the bar.

Barr is signaling to right-wingers that Durham won’t bring any new criminal charges. But to the extent that he has an interest in “contemptible or abusive behavior” that doesn’t reach the bar of criminal charges, the attorney general might want to take another look at the Mueller report and how Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), chair of the House Intelligence Committee, defined Trump’s collusion with Russia.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.