Politics

The Worst Smears and Falsehoods in William Barr’s CBS Interview

William Barr.
Attorney General William Barr in Anchorage, Alaska, on Wednesday.
Yereth Rosen/Reuters

Attorney General William Barr says he’s trying to wrap up the Russia investigation with fairness and honesty. “We live in a hyperpartisan age,” Barr told Jan Crawford of CBS News in an interview recorded on Thursday. “I’m going to make the decisions based on the law and the facts.” But the 45-minute interview, from which CBS aired excerpts on Friday, is full of falsehoods and smears. It exposes Barr as an agent of President Donald Trump.

Barr says Trump didn’t obstruct justice in the investigation, despite special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, which details nearly a dozen obstructive acts by the president. To this day, Barr has supplied no written basis for his conclusions and no point-by-point rebuttal of Mueller’s evidence. Instead, Barr has turned the Justice Department’s fire on Trump’s investigators. Two weeks ago, Barr told Fox News that if he were Trump, “I’d be comfortable saying it was a witch hunt.”

In Thursday’s interview, Crawford asked Barr about the 2016 decision by former FBI officials, including then-Director James Comey, to investigate contacts between Russian-affiliated actors and people in the Trump campaign. “Mueller has spent two and a half years,” Barr replied. “And the fact is, there is no evidence of a conspiracy. So it was bogus. This whole idea that Trump was in cahoots with the Russians is bogus.”

Bogus? To begin with, Mueller was appointed on May 17, 2017, almost exactly two years ago. The phrase “two and a half years” comes from Trump’s surrogates, who have been circulating it for months. Barr’s description of the report’s bottom line on collusion—“no evidence”—also parrots the Trump camp’s spin. Actually, Mueller reported that there was evidence but that it “did not establish that the Campaign coordinated or conspired” in two specific Russian operations: promulgating fake news to influence the election and hacking and disseminating Democratic emails. Mueller concluded that “the investigation established multiple links between Trump Campaign officials and individuals tied to the Russian government. Those links included Russian offers of assistance to the Campaign.” Mueller added that “in some instances, the Campaign was receptive to the offer.”

In the interview, Barr addresses only one of Trump’s multiple efforts to interfere in the investigation. He asserts that Trump’s firing of Comey in May 2017 can’t be obstruction of justice, because “we don’t believe that the firing of an agency head could be established as having the probable effect, objectively speaking, of sabotaging a proceeding.”

That’s preposterous. Mueller’s report documents a direct attempt by Trump, through Comey, to sabotage a proceeding. In February 2017, Trump expelled everyone else from the Oval Office so he could speak with Comey alone. Trump used this opportunity to ask Comey to drop the FBI’s investigation of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who had been caught lying about his contacts with Russia. Mueller reports that just before this meeting, Trump told a friend that getting rid of Flynn would end the Russia inquiry. But Comey continued the inquiry, and Trump fired him. That’s prima facie evidence of intent to sabotage the investigation.

Barr doesn’t just assert Trump’s innocence. He says there’s no evidence that Trump is damaging American institutions. “People are saying that it’s President Trump that’s shredding our institutions. I really see no evidence of that,” Barr told Crawford. The real “shredding of our norms and our institutions,” Barr contends, is coming from “the idea of resisting a democratically elected president and basically throwing everything at him.”

Again, that’s boilerplate spin from the Trump camp. And again, it flies in the face of the Mueller report. In addition to Trump’s attempt to subvert the Flynn investigation, the report details how Trump sent back-channel messages to then–Attorney General Jeff Sessions to abort the Russia inquiry, tried to overturn Sessions’ recusal, tried to cover up the Trump Tower meeting between Russians and his senior campaign aides, tried to fire Mueller, and tried to create a false witness statement that he hadn’t tried to fire Mueller. Every one of these incidents is a documented assault on American institutions. Barr’s claim that he has seen no evidence of such assaults is, in effect, a confession that the attorney general hasn’t read or refuses to accept the report.

While denying any evidence of Trump’s corruption, Barr insinuates that Trump’s investigators behaved improperly. “The use of foreign intelligence capabilities and counterintelligence capabilities against an American political campaign to me is unprecedented. And it’s a serious red line that’s been crossed,” Barr told Crawford. “I have not gotten answers that are at all satisfactory,” he said of the investigators’ conduct. “Some of the facts that I’ve learned don’t hang together with the official explanations.” Barr doesn’t explain on what basis he’s casting these public aspersions, which ostensibly derive from an ongoing internal probe of the investigators. Nor does he reject Trump’s claims that the investigators betrayed their country. When Crawford asked whether Comey and other top FBI officials “committed treason,” as Trump alleges, Barr replied: “Not as a legal matter.”

Throughout this performance, Barr depicted himself as an honest guy just trying to call balls and strikes in a world gone mad. He lamented that others don’t share his objectivity. “Sometimes people can convince themselves that what they’re doing is in the higher interest,” he told Crawford. “Sometimes they can look at evidence and facts through a biased prism that they themselves don’t realize.” If Barr is lucky, he’ll be remembered as one of those people—and not as an accomplice who lied through his teeth.