Why Barr asking foreign leaders for help in probe of U.S. agencies raises concerns


JUDY WOODRUFF: For all of the focus so far
this week on President Trump and the impeachment
inquiry into him, there has also been renewed
scrutiny of the U.S. Justice Department.
William Brangham reports on the new questions
being raised today about the nation’s top
law enforcement official.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: That’s right, Judy.
When Attorney General William Barr began his
second stint as attorney general earlier this
year, he was seen by many as a stabilizing
force for the department.
He ended up overseeing the tail end of Robert
Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s interference
in the last presidential election.
But upon the release of the Mueller report,
and in subsequent months, critics have accused
him of acting more like the president’s attorney,
rather than the country’s.
Now, according to The Washington Post, Attorney
General Barr has been personally visiting
with foreign intelligence officials to encourage
them to help out with an investigation that
President Trump hopes will discredit the entire
Russia probe.
Devlin Barrett is one of the reporters at
The Washington Post who helped break this
story.
And he joins me now.
Devlin, always good the see you on the “NewsHour.”
Thank you.
Before we get into Attorney General Barr’s
role in all of this, can you just remind us
what this investigation that is going on at
the DOJ is looking into?
DEVLIN BARRETT, The Washington Post: Right.
This investigation has been going on since
about May, when Attorney General Barr, who
hadn’t been in the job that long, appointed
a Connecticut U.S. attorney named John Durham
to start looking into questions of, was there
any inappropriate conduct by intelligence
agencies, specifically the CIA or the FBI,
involving the investigation of Trump campaign
associate and this whole notion of the collusion
investigation?
And the question that was trying to be answered
was, did any intelligence officials of either
of those agencies cross any lines?
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And so this is looking in
part at what the president on a nearly basis
refers to as the witch-hunt.
That’s what this investigation is in part
looking at.
DEVLIN BARRETT: Right.
It’s another review, internal review of that
process.
And, remember, there is already the inspector
general from the Justice Department looking
at it.
There’s a lot of, frankly, people looking
over their shoulders and checking their work,
but this is — has been moving around in the
background, and we have just come to learn
how significant this effort has become.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And your reporting last
night revealed just how deeply involved Attorney
General Barr is in that investigation.
Can you tell us a little bit about what you
found?
DEVLIN BARRETT: That’s right.
So, for example, last week, the attorney general
traveled to Rome to meet with Italian intelligence
officials to talk about some of the areas
of interest in this case and to essentially
act as an introduction to John Durham.
Durham was with him in Rome, we’re told, for
some of these meetings.
And what folks around the attorney general
say is, he’s basically trying to make sure
that whatever Durham wants or needs, he can
get in terms of cooperation from foreign countries.
But it’s an amazing situation, right, because
you have a senior U.S. official asking foreign
governments to help investigate U.S. agencies,
and that’s just a very rare thing.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: You spoke with in your reporting
a lot of current and former Department of
Justice officials who, quite frankly, do not
seem very happy with this arrangement.
Can you explain what their complaint, what
their beef is with this?
DEVLIN BARRETT: Well, remember, the political
backdrop to all of this is that the president
keeps accusing the folks involved in this
investigation of crimes and corruption.
So, amid that public, you know, sort of drumbeat,
what you have is the attorney general pushing
forward on an investigation that, at least
in theory, could find examples of that.
But what current and former intelligence officials
say is, that’s just nonsense, that nothing
untoward happened in this investigation, other
than intelligence officials trying to figure
out, what was the extent of the Russian interactions
with Americans, and that this is all just
sort of, in their minds, a witch-hunt of,
you know, professional intelligence officers,
and it’s unfair.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But if Durham’s investigation
is considered legitimate, the conspiracy theories
aside, what really is the problem with the
head of the DOJ saying to foreign governments,
I’d like do you help with this DOJ investigation?
Isn’t that the defense that the DOJ currently
makes?
DEVLIN BARRETT: Absolutely.
And their argument is, look, what’s wrong
with having a review of what happened to make
sure nothing was done inappropriately?
What is the possible harm in that?
I think the challenge in the political — the
public discussion of all of this is that,
because of the way Barr handled the Mueller
investigation, because of the way Congress
is now fighting over so many things that the
Trump administration is doing, there’s so
little trust between Democrats on the Hill
and the Justice Department run by Barr.
And, frankly, there is a fair bit of distrust
even among some of these agencies as they
try to sort through this that no one is really
sure that the other guy is operating in good
faith.
And so that is a big part of the concern you
hear from current and former officials.
And that’s a big part of the accusations being
lobbed against the attorney general right
now.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Your reporting comes out
obviously in this swirl of other news about
the impeachment inquiry going on into the
president’s conversation with the president
of Ukraine.
To what extent is there a connection between
this backwards look at the Russia investigation
and the current ongoing investigation into
the president’s phone call with the Ukrainians?
Are they connected, or are they not?
DEVLIN BARRETT: They are, but in an odd way.
So, if you remember, when the phone call came
out and the first details of the phone call
came out, the news really focused on — rightly,
focused on the question of, was the president
trying to get the Ukrainian government to
investigate Joe Biden and his son?
That’s an important question, no doubt, but
part of the government response to that was,
you know, the U.S. side hasn’t really pursued
that.
This is not something that the agencies themselves
have pursued.
But there was another part of the conversation
that was sort of overlooked, which is the
president also asking the Ukraine for help
in reexamining 2016.
And there you see actually, in fact, there
has been a fairly extensive government effort
involving the attorney general and others
to go around the world and talk to people
and try to figure out exactly what was done
in 2016.
So that part of the conversation was based
in hard reality.
And so that’s the connection between the whistle-blower
story that everyone has been chasing and this
sort of under-the-radar, frankly, investigation
touching on all these countries.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: This under-the-radar investigation,
I know it’s hard, and I appreciate you helping
us keep them separate and keep our eyes on
the ball here.
What is the timeline?
What do we know about when Durham’s investigation
might come out?
What do we know about when the DOJ inspector
general’s report might come out?
DEVLIN BARRETT: So, the inspector general
report is expected pretty soon, maybe a matter
of weeks or a couple of months.
The Durham investigation is a different matter.
First of all, it’s much more far-flung.
Second of all, Durham historically is a very
well-respected investigator, but he’s also
someone who tends to take years for some of
his investigations.
So the Durham work could take a long time.
But we do expect to see that I.G. report pretty
soon.
And I think, at that point, it will be an
interesting moment in terms of the public
debate: Is this really just a bunch of conspiracy
theories, or is there some issue inside the
investigation that we hadn’t known about?
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All right, Devlin Barrett,
as always, of The Washington Post, thank you
very, very much.
DEVLIN BARRETT: Thanks for having me.

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