Bill Barr is gearing up for a major clash in his own department over the Russia probe: report

Bill Barr is gearing up for a major clash in his own department over the Russia probe: report
PBS NewsHour
News & Politics

Attorney General Bill Barr does not agree with a central conclusion of the forthcoming report from Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz about the Russia investigation, according to a new report from the Washington Post.

As I discussed previously, Horowitz — who has gone out of his way in the past to harshly criticize President Donald Trump's enemies — nonetheless appears ready to release a report concluding that the Russia investigation that focused on members of the Trump campaign was opened properly, according to multiple reports. It will also reportedly find some wrongdoing and sloppiness on the part of the FBI in the course of the probe, but nothing that supports the Trump theory that the whole effort was a "hoax" or a politically motivated plot from the top to bring him down.

But as the inspector general, Horowitz operates independently from Barr's oversight, meaning both that he can't change the investigation's findings — and also that he won't have any personal ownership over them. So the report suggests that DOJ is heading for a serious clash.

"[Behind] the scenes at the Justice Department, disagreement has surfaced about one of Horowitz’s central conclusions on the origins of the Russia investigation," the Post reported. "The discord could be the prelude to a major fissure within federal law enforcement on the controversial question of investigating a presidential campaign."

It's not clear what public form this disagreement will take or how contentiously it will play out, but it is likely to be a stunning turn of events.

Matthew Miller, a former Justice Department spokesperson under President Barack Obama, said the potential clash was "unreal."

"It is not uncommon for an AG to disagree with an IG finding because it is too tough on DOJ," he said on Twitter. "I have never heard of an IG confirming the department did things correctly and an AG disputing it. Just shocking partisan behavior."

Jonathan Adler, a conservative legal scholar, similarly called the Post report "bizarre."

"AG Barr apparently objects to IG conclusion there was sufficient evidence to open investigation into Trump campaign in 2016, but not because information wasn't sufficient. Rather b/c IG didn't adequately consider other info," Adler wrote. "If the story is accurate, it's as if AG Barr doesn't understand the relevant question. Key is whether threshold sufficiency of evidence to open investigation existed, not whether other exonerating evidence might also exist."

It may even be worse than that.

The report indicated that Barr believes "other U.S. agencies, such as the CIA, may hold significant information that could alter Horowitz’s conclusion on that point." This seems to point to a right-wing conspiracy theory, which holds that U.S. intelligence agencies worked with foreign intelligence services to somehow set up the Trump campaign.

There's never been any credible support for this theory — and in fact, there's good reason to believe it's false. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a top ally of the president, led the CIA before he took his current post. And according to a Politico report from July, Pompeo aggressively grilled officials in the agency about its conclusions from the Russia probe.

"Pompeo also asked about CIA’s work with the FBI on the Russia probe in 2016. Two U.S. officials further confirmed to POLITICO that the interview occurred and was robust," Politico reported. "Additionally, a congressional official said Pompeo and his deputies never gave any indication to lawmakers, even behind closed doors, that the CIA had acted improperly or drawn incorrect conclusions about Putin’s desire to help Trump get elected."

So another ally of the president apparently came up dry when trying to tap the well of Trumpist conspiracy theories. Horowitz appears primed to knock them down. And former Special Counsel Robert Mueller gave no indication of wrongdoing by U.S. intelligence in the investigation.

But Trump wants a preordained conclusion, and Barr seems determined to give it to him. And he'll have another bite at the apple. Barr has also directed U.S. Attorney John Durham to review the intelligence community's conduct during the Russia probe, and that review has reportedly turned into a criminal investigation. Unlike Horowitz, Durham does report directly to Barr. It's not clear what will happen if Durham doesn't give Barr the answers he wants to hear.

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