At a Senate hearing last May, Kamala Harris asked Attorney General William Barr, “Has the president or anyone at the White House ever asked or suggested that you open an investigation of anyone?” Barr declined to answer. It is fairly clear why. He has apparently been directing the probe his boss, President Trump, has been demanding for years: one designed to show that the FBI investigation into Trump’s secretive and compromising relations with Russia was itself a crime.
Several newspaper reports have turned up details of Barr’s involvement. He has met with officials in Australia, the United Kingdom, and Italy. In theory, there’s nothing wrong with cross-checking the FBI’s work to make sure it handled its investigation of Trump correctly. But everything about this investigation suggests Barr is carrying out a political vendetta at Trump’s orders to intimidate bureaucrats who would defy the authoritarian and lawless president.
Barr has been prejudging the Mueller investigation in public since before Trump appointed him. In 2017, he said Mueller’s investigation of obstruction of justice risked “taking on the look of an entirely political operation to overthrow the president.” Last April, he accused the FBI of “spying” on Trump, again opining without evidence that the bureau had treated the president very unfairly. (“I think there was a failure among a group of leaders [at the FBI] at the upper echelon.”)
He has repeatedly cast the FBI investigation as a coup attempt. “Republics have fallen because of Praetorian Guard mentality where government officials get very arrogant, they identify the national interest with their own political preferences, and they feel that anyone who has a different opinion, you know, is somehow an enemy of the state,” he said in one especially wild interview. “And you know, there is that tendency that they know better and that, you know, they’re there to protect as guardians of the people. That can easily translate into essentially supervening the will of the majority and getting your own way as a government official.” This is exactly Trump’s “Deep State” theory, albeit employing more multisyllabic terms: An evil cabal of bureaucrats has decided to overturn the will of the people by trying to overturn the 2016 election.
Another sign is that Trump’s loyalists have expressed almost uncontainable excitement about Barr’s work. In April, Trump excitedly told Sean Hannity that Barr was investigating “big” and “incredible” evidence that Ukraine had secretly colluded with the Hillary Clinton campaign to plant evidence against Trump.
The right-wing legal community has been vibrating with excitement at what Barr is producing. Conservative columnist and movement apparatchik Hugh Hewitt gleefully predicts Barr will give “shock therapy” to Democrats. “A Justice Department inspector-general report into surveillance of American citizens based on the Steele dossier is coming,” he notes. “If indictments are warranted, U.S. Attorney John Durham will be bringing them. And a deep dive into Ukrainian natural-gas company Burisma and its well-connected board member named Biden, is imminent.” Former George W. Bush attorney general Michael Mukasey, after, of course, insisting in the Wall Street Journal editorial page on Trump’s innocence, pivots to Barr’s counter-investigation. Mukasey lets on that one of Barr’s investigators will soon “determine whether highly specific criminal laws were violated, and if so by whom” — i.e., the perpetrators are not Trump or his loyalists but the people who investigated him. The fact that Republicans have such specific and wildly positive expectations for Barr’s probe is a foreboding sign.
Barr’s counter-investigation is not the same thing as Trump’s attempts to pressure Ukraine to smear Biden. It is not improper on its face; in theory, Barr might be double-checking everything in a completely aboveboard fashion. But there is little reason to believe Barr is acting fairly at all and a great deal of reason to suspect he is carrying out his duties as hatchet man for his authoritarian boss.