Attorney General William Barr said this week that he has questions about the Russia investigation and has launched his own internal review to get some answers.
At two high-stakes hearings on Capitol Hill, Barr said he’s worried about potential FBI misconduct at the early stages of the Russia investigation and that he also is scrutinizing how the government obtained secret surveillance warrants against a Trump campaign associate.
Barr’s surprising announcement came just a few days after President Donald Trump publicly demanded investigations like these. With the Russia probe concluded, Trump has turned his ire to the investigators themselves and has called for a review of their conduct.
The attorney general’s move is a boon to Trump allies who’ve clamored for nearly two years that the Russia investigation was a “witch hunt” controlled by political partisans who abused government surveillance tools to stop Trump’s election.
But many of these allegations rely upon theories that are barely supported by evidence or have been debunked in the two-plus years since the investigation began. Of course, there is always more for the public to learn, and Barr could uncover new details that change the calculus.
Despite Barr’s curiosity, there are already at least partial answers to some of his big questions.
‘Spying’ on Trump campaign aides
What Barr said:
“I think spying on a political campaign is a big deal. … I think there is spying that did occur. Yes, I think spying did occur. But the question is whether it was predicated, adequately predicated, and I’m not suggesting it wasn’t adequately predicated but I need to explore that. I think it’s my obligation.”
What we know:
It’s not entirely clear what Barr was referring to with these explosive comments. He’s probably referring to how the FBI used secret surveillance and an informant to monitor Trump aides.
The surveillance of Trump campaign aide Carter Page, under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, has become a rallying cry for Republicans. They say it proves that the FBI abused tools typically meant to target terrorists to instead prey on the Trump campaign.
But these talking points ignore critical facts. The surveillance did begin under the Obama administration, but Trump’s own appointees at the Justice Department continued it. When it started, Page had already left Trump’s campaign. And all four federal judges who approved the warrants and renewals had been appointed by Republican presidents.
The FBI controversially used some material from a dossier of explosive memos written by a retired British spy alleging widespread Trump-Russia collusion, in addition to other intelligence that remains redacted, when applying for the first FISA warrant. Republicans have said this is an abuse of US intelligence because the dossier was funded by Democrats who opposed Trump.
There’s also the informant, a longtime FBI source who met with Page, Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos and another Trump campaign official to glean information for investigators about their Russia ties.
Trump dubbed this situation “spygate” and said it shows that the Obama administration planted a “spy” in his campaign. But CNN reported that this isn’t true. The informant wasn’t spying on Team Trump for political purposes. His role was to assist a serious FBI investigation. Both Page and Papadopoulos later acknowledged having extensive contacts with Russians.
Perhaps Barr’s review could determine whether the FBI made a mistake by sending the source to talk to people affiliated with an ongoing presidential campaign. The Justice Department’s internal watchdog is already examining the informant’s role and the FISA warrants on Page.
Origins of the Russia investigation
What Barr said:
“I am reviewing the conduct of the investigation and trying to get my arms around all the aspects of the counterintelligence investigation that was conducted during the summer of 2016.”
What we know:
Trump and his Republican allies have slammed the FBI for starting the investigation in the first place. But their arguments hang on a widely debunked lie that the probe began because of “the dossier.”
That’s not true. Bipartisan reports from Congress say the FBI opened the investigation after it got a tip from a foreign diplomat that a Trump campaign aide knew about Russian hacks before the emails were released by WikiLeaks. The adviser was Papadopoulos, who later pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his Russian contacts and served two weeks in prison.
“The Federal Bureau of Investigation opened an enterprise counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign after receiving information related to Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos,” according to a 2018 report from Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee after its own yearlong investigation.
Democrats agreed with almost nothing in the GOP report except for this point. Perhaps there is more to the story, and Barr’s review could offer context for the FBI’s actions in 2016. But Barr could find himself in the awkward position of debunking his boss’s favorite conspiracy theory.