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

According to The Washington Post, Attorney General William Barr has been personally visiting with foreign leaders to encourage them to help out with an investigation that President Trump hopes will discredit special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe. William Brangham talks with Devlin Barrett of The Washington Post to untangle the many threads of the story.

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  • 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:

    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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