Mainstream media have settled on two attack lines after President Donald Trump on Thursday granted Attorney General William Barr extensive power to declassify documents and ordered intelligence and other agencies to fully and promptly cooperate with Barr’s investigation into the suspicious opening of the probe of the president and his associates’ potential collusion with Russian in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.
One is that this marks a dangerous, perhaps even unconstitutional escalation of the investigation that could compromise sources, damage ongoing trials and otherwise hurt America’s intelligence community. The other is that there is little to investigate here, and the president is merely trying to distract Americans’ attention from his other problems.
In “Trump moves to escalate investigation of intel agencies,” Zeke Miller and Eric Tucker of the Associated Press pursued a little of both approaches.
“Trump directed the intelligence community to ‘quickly and fully cooperate’ with Barr’s probe,” wrote Miller and Tucker. “The directive marked an escalation in Trump’s efforts to ‘investigate the investigators,’ as he continues to try to undermine the findings of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe amid mounting Democratic calls for impeachment proceedings.”
They did not explain why Trump would seek to undermine the findings of the Mueller report since it cleared him of colluding with the Russians and left to Barr whether to pursue obstruction of justice charges, which the attorney general quickly determined were not warranted.
This could cause problems, Miller and Tucker wrote. It could “create fresh tensions within the FBI and other intelligence agencies, which have historically resisted such demands,” they wrote. The new powers enable the attorney general to “unilaterally unseal documents that the Justice Department has historically regarded as among its most secret.” Warrants for the FISA court were not made public “even to the person on whom the surveillance was authorized,” they noted.
Christopher Wray, the director of the FBI, “would presumably balk at declassifying classified information that could reveal sensitive sources or methods of investigators,” they wrote.
Obama administration officials were concerned “the attorney general, hand-picked by Trump, could declassify and release selective bits to make the previous administration and former senior officials look bad.” All attorneys general are hand-picked by their president.
Maggie Haberman and Michael Schmidt of the New York Times were equally appalled in “Trump Gives Attorney General Sweeping Power in Review of 2016 Campaign Inquiry.”
The move gives “Barr immense leverage over the intelligence community and enormous power over what the public leans about the roots of the Russia investigation,” they wrote. The Times and the Washington Post both quoted Jeremy Bash, a CIA official under President Obama. “It’s dangerous,” he told the Times. “Because the power to declassify is also the power to selectively declassify, and selective declassification is one of the ways the Trump White House can spin a narrative about the origins of the Russia investigation to their point of view.”
But later, it takes the second course and says, “Despite the significant step, there are indications there may be little criminality to uncover.” It said John Durham, a U.S. Attorney in Connecticut appointed last week to conduct his own investigation of potential FBI/CIA wrongdoing, “is conducting only a limited review, not a criminal investigation, which suggests Mr. Barr may not have identified enough wrongdoing to open such an inquiry.”
In an analysis piece in the Washington Post headlined “Trump just gave William Barr carte blanche to declassify information. What could go wrong?,” reporter Aaron Blake suggested Barr is not the right person for the job.
“The most pertinent example of this is Barr’s stewardship of the Mueller report, for which is initial summary drew a remarkable written rebuke from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III himself,” Blake wrote. “Even before we found out Mueller had weighed in, though, we could see from the report itself that Barr had offered a Trump-friendly and misleading preview of the report.”
Mueller said nothing in Barr’s summary was inaccurate and no significant details were omitted and that his only questions were about whether to release it piecemeal or all at once.