The investigation into President Trump's Russia ties may have officially concluded, but the investigation into that investigation has apparently just begun.
That's what Attorney General William Barr seemed to signal this week when he told a Senate committee he was concerned about allegations that government agencies "spied" on Trump's campaign during the 2016 presidential election.
"I am going to be reviewing both the genesis and the conduct of intelligence activities directed at the Trump campaign during 2016," Barr said. "I think spying on a political campaign is a big deal."
Indeed, that would be a big deal. But "spying" is an inaccurate — and in fact inflammatory — term for what happened in 2016. Here's what actually happened: America's counterintelligence agencies started investigating whether the Trump campaign had improper contacts with Russia. And they had good reasons — some public, some less so — for launching that investigation.
Let's not forget the behind-the-scenes origins of the Russia inquiry: A loudmouthed official within the Trump campaign bragged, drunkenly, about Russia having dirt on Trump's opponent, Hillary Clinton. Concerned Australian officials passed that information to American officials, who reacted sensibly.
This information wouldn't become public until much later. But even during the campaign, it was apparent that something odd was happening. The Russians really did hack Clinton's campaign emails. Trump really did publicly implore Russia to release that information. And Russia really did release those emails.
There was smoke billowing out of the windows of American democracy. Is it any wonder officials went looking for a fire?
You may feel like you've heard all of this a million times before, and you may be weary of it. But it's important to cement these details in the American psyche so they cannot be dislodged or corrupted. After all, Trump is determined to co-opt the story of Obama administration officials responding sensibly to an apparent foreign threat to our democracy and replace it with the narrative of a slow-moving illegal "coup" against himself. And he will try to repeat that story until the real one is edged out of view.
Now, Barr is apparently ready to use the power of his office to perpetuate Trump's warped perspective. He has no reason to believe the investigation into Trump-Russia connections was untoward, as he admitted: "I'm not suggesting [the investigation] was not adequately predicated," he said, "but I need to explore that."
To clarify: Barr has no evidence of improprieties in the FBI investigation, including “spying,” but wants to examine the matter anyway because he has "concerns" and because, as he said, he believes spying did occur (even if he hasn’t seen evidence of it) https://t.co/yguyRtauD3
— Tim O'Brien (@TimOBrien) April 10, 2019
He needs to explore something even though he has no reason to warrant such an exploration? That is worrisome. Trump has always made clear his wish to use the power of government to make his political opponents pay a price for their opposition. This started with the "Lock her up!" chants during his campaign, and continued with his constant assertions during Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation that Democrats were responsible for the "real collusion" with Russia, thus suggesting his opponents were responsible for criminal acts. Barr's "review" of the investigations into the Trump campaign may be meaningless and pro forma — meant merely to placate the president — but it could also be a sign that the Justice Department is ready and willing to make all the president's most authoritarian fantasies come true.
Barr had a choice. He could serve his boss, or he could serve the country — and by using an inflammatory word like "spying" to imply that legitimate acts by federal investigators were actually illicit, he has chosen to pander to the president's desires. Barr tried to contain the damage after the fact, saying he believed any wrongdoing would have been committed by the agency's leaders. But that's not the part of the story that made headlines.
Trump spent more than a year heckling Barr's predecessor, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, for supposed sins of disloyalty. With his latest comments, Barr has signaled that he's more willing than Sessions to do the president's dirty work. He's already inflicted a fresh wound on the FBI. The question now is whether that dirty work includes endangering democracy by putting the president's critics in legal jeopardy.