William Barr Is Making It Harder to Protect the 2020 Election

Francis Wilkinson

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The attorney general of the United States is commonly described as the nation’s “chief law enforcement officer.” Yet the current attorney general, William Barr, seems to have a pronounced aversion to enforcing certain laws.

Since February, when he became attorney general for the second time in his long career, Barr’s most notable priority has been undermining his own department’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Now news reports suggest that Barr contests the conclusion of a report by the Justice Department inspector general that the investigation was justified.

In some ways Barr’s campaign is unsurprising. In 2017, he stated that a bogus controversy involving Hillary Clinton and a Canadian mining company called Uranium One was more worthy of investigation than the staggering array of contacts between Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia, and the equally staggering number of lies told to explain away those contacts.

Barr’s notion that an investigation of the Trump campaign was inappropriate is astonishing. Consider:

On the Russian side, there were multiple cyber hacks of Trump’s Democratic opponents and the subsequent public dissemination of the results of those hacks, which were timed to provide maximum advantage to Trump. Some of Russia’s malicious social media campaigns were intended to suppress the votes of Democratic constituencies. During this treachery, Russians met with Trump family members, top Trump campaign staff and various Trump advisers — more than 100 contacts overall.

Then there is the Trump side of things. Start with a candidate who publicly solicited Russian cybercrime to aid his campaign while he was also currying favor with Moscow for a real estate deal and claiming, falsely, that he had no business dealings in Russia. Add to the record that, according to his eldest son, his business depended on Russian investment. Trump’s subsequent conduct, including his behavior last year in Helsinki with Russian President Vladimir Putin, hardly eased concerns about his links to Russia.   

Barr’s attack on the Russia investigation does not alter the facts on record. What it does do, however, is send a powerful message to the investigators and prosecutors of the Justice Department.

That message is clear: If you pursue more crimes involving Trump, you will be hung out to dry. Think of Sally Yates, Lisa Page, Peter Strzok and Bruce Ohr — all department employees who have been savaged by Trump and Republican allies for doing their jobs protecting the U.S. from foreign sabotage.

In Senate testimony in May, Barr sent a loud signal about his reluctance to enforce the law against foreign interference in U.S. elections. Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware asked Barr whether the FBI should be alerted in the event North Korean agents — North Korea! — offered to help a U.S. campaign.

Though the law against foreign interference is unambiguous, and North Korea is a heinous police state, Barr hesitated. When he finally answered, he qualified his response, allowing that if the contact were made by “a foreign intelligence service, yes.” Everyone else, apparently, is free to proceed.

“There could not be a more destructive attorney general than if Vladimir Putin had appointed Barr himself,” said former FBI assistant director Frank Figliuzzi this week. As Russia’s election interference campaign ramps up for 2020, Putin may find he has an easier time of it than expected: Barr has essentially issued instructions to leave the door unlocked, and a light on.

To contact the author of this story: Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Newman at mnewman43@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.

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