William Barr may be afraid to appear before the House Judiciary Committee, but he’s perfectly happy to go on Trump-friendly media and promote his “spying” claims. In interviews with the Wall Street Journal and Fox News, Barr went beyond statements he had previously made, saying repeatedly that “Government power was used to spy on American citizens.” Barr continually used the word “spying” throughout both interviews, though he offered no evidence that anything had been done that was either illegal or improper.
On Friday morning, Donald Trump followed up Barr’s interviews with a tweet claiming that his campaign “was conclusively spied on.” He followed up with, “TREASON means long jail sentences, and this was TREASON!”
Legally authorized surveillance isn’t spying. And it’s certainly not reason. But both Barr and Trump are deliberately throwing around the most loaded words possible to shape public opinion and push the realm of possible reactions into the extreme. Those words are setting the stage both for endless investigations of the Russia investigation, and for changes to the law that make it easier to get away with even more conspiracy in the future.
Speaking before the Senate last week, FBI Director Christopher Wray disagreed with Barr’s wording, saying “That’s not the term I would use.” But Trump couldn’t allow his own FBI director’s defense of using the right terms to stand. At an ad hoc press appearance the next day, Trump said that Wray gave a “ridiculous answer.” And just as Barr was quick to dismiss anything that Robert Mueller said, he’s been equally quick to show his disdain for Wray. For Barr, both Mueller and Wray are simply underlings who need to be shown their place.
Barr stepped carefully through the terms collusion, conspiracy, and cooperation during his three page re-write of the Mueller report. He understands exactly what these terms mean. And he understands exactly why spying is the wrong term, one that can do lasting damage to the FBI and other intelligence agencies. He’s using it … because me means to do lasting damage to the FBI and other intelligence agencies.
And when it comes to Trump misusing the term “treason” … that’s only true so long as the people with the ability to enforce the law agree.
The combination of Barr’s claims about “spying” and his statement to both the WSJ and Fox that “we need to ensure that the government doesn’t use its powers to put a thumb on the scale” were done for a single basis—in support of Barr rewriting the rules around how an investigation can be initiated. While everything that’s come out about the origins of the Russia investigation indicates that agents at every level worked scrupulously to follow the rules and obtain necessary warrants, Barr intends to make it harder to initiate an investigation.
The language that Barr is using provides a preview of the findings that should be expected when Barr’s investigation on top of investigation produce results. Those findings—or at least, the part of those findings that Barr carefully culls, curates, re-writes, and releases to the public—are certain to provide plenty of issues which Barr can misrepresent using the harshest possible language, all of it to suggest that the Mueller investigation was improper. Like “collusion,” “spying” is being used expressly because it has no clear legal definition … but it does carry weight.
There seems little doubt that Barr will get what he wants from his investigation into the investigation. And even if he doesn’t all he has to do is claim that he did. After all … who is going to make him produce the facts? He’s not responsive to requests, subpoenas, or findings of contempt.
The result of Barr’s meta-investigation, and his rewrite of FBI rules, is likely to be even more investigations designed to fuel “lock him/her up” chants at Trump rallies. It is sure to be rules that will make it harder to look into foreign interference, or to thwart genuine conspiracies, going into the 2020 election.
Trump and other Republicans have repeatedly claimed that they “love” the FBI. In theory. It’s only every director, assistant director, official, agent, or lawyer that they hate. Barr’s rule changes will give them what they want—an FBI they can “proudly” point to when they like, but one that is neutralized when it comes to getting in their way.
And on the treason front … that word may be carefully defined. But the ability of Trump to act as if it’s not, is surprisingly broad.