When Donald Trump asks why Robert Mueller didn’t investigate Hillary Clinton, or James Comey, or the Kennedy assassination, the reason is simple enough: He wasn’t authorized to do so. Mueller’s orders, which still haven’t been seen in public, were limited enough in their scope that even looking into Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort’s long association with Russia took getting special permission from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. No matter how many times Trump says otherwise, it’s very unlikely that Mueller looked at his tax returns, or made any broad review of the Trump Organization’s finances, because it simply wasn’t in his writ.
Not so William Barr. On Monday, Barr dispatched a letter to House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, and in that letter the attorney general made it clear that he’s going to look at anything he wants, for any reason he wants. And Barr intends to look at a lot.
According to Barr, his investigation into the investigators will be “broad in scope and multifaceted.” He going to look into not just U.S. intelligence agencies, but foreign services as well, presumably so that he can condemn Australia and the U.K. for mentioning to U.S. officials that Trump advisers were sounding all the sleeping-with-the-enemy alarm bells. Barr says he’s also looking into “non-governmental organizations and individuals.” What that means isn’t clear, other than that no one is safe.
Everything concerning the origins of the counterintelligence investigation is up for grabs. Not only does Barr have a team under U.S. attorney John Durham dedicated to the task of making sure everything was done “to the satisfaction of the attorney general”; not only is the inspector general conducting a separate investigation; but Barr himself is also moving forward with the unprecedented power bestowed upon him by Trump to reveal all or part of any classified document.
Barr has already made it clear that he considers Robert Mueller nothing more than an underling whose opinions deserve no respect. And as of Trump’s May 24 memo to the intelligence community, everyone in Washington can expect to receive the same treatment—because everyone now works for Barr.
As the letter to Nadler makes clear, everyone in every department that ever touched a “Top Secret” stamp now answers to William Barr.
On May 24, 2019, the President issued a memorandum concerning the Review, which directed that the heads of elements of the intelligence community … and the heads of each department or agency that includes an element of the intelligence community shall provide such assistance and information as the Attorney General may request in connection with that review.
Barr can choose to declassify all of a document, even if in doing so he endangers agents, assets, allies, or techniques. He can, as he demonstrated so ably with his “summary” of the Mueller report, choose to declassify parts of documents, releasing the sentences, or sentence fragments, that he feels support Trump’s persecution claims, while keeping a firm lid on any opposing evidence.
And “in furtherance” of Barr’s review, every agency has been ordered to hold on to any document that bears on the investigation, and produce any witness … for Barr, of course. Not for Congress.
What Barr did with the Mueller report was a preview. Because at least in that case, everyone was aware of the underlying document, and there was always the thinking that Robert Mueller would push back if Barr went too far afield. That didn’t turn out to be the case, but at least it was a good theory.
Having successfully floated his distorted take on the special counsel’s report to the delight of Trump, Sean Hannity, and Lindsey Graham, Barr now has something even better: an absolutely clean slate. He’s not summarizing a report; he’s creating one. And he can make it up from scratch, or weave it from imagined threads. Because no one else has the access and authority given to Barr.
Trump can say no to Congress all day. He can hide documents. He can order witnesses not to testify. No one is allowed to say no to Barr. Or to check his work.