As a citizen, I feel fairly confident about leaving judgement of Donald Trump’s presidency to the American people and the November election. As a journalist, I professionally acutely interested in the ongoing battle over the FBI, because it seems central to American’s faith in in its government institutions.
The story received another jolt last week when Attorney General William Barr said the Justice Department would move to close the government’s case against former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Then on Friday, the president expressed dissatisfaction with the conduct of current FBI director, Christopher Wray, in a telephone interview with Fox News, as reported by The Washington Post.
Economic Principals readers have probably read enough about what critics think Attorney General Barr did wrong. If not, here’s a well-informed take is from the well-regarded online Lawfare site.
I wanted to know more about what its critics think the FBI did wrong. So after I read the commentary on the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal – more on that some other day – I turned to Barr’s interview with CBS correspondent Catherine Herridge, in which I thought he gave a pretty good if incomplete account of his decision. It was, he said, based on a review of the events of December 2016 and January 2017, undertaken at his request by Jeffrey Jensen, US Attorney for Eastern Missouri.
Those events, between the election and Trump’s inauguration, transpired long before Barr became Attorney General. Looking back on it, Barr argued that the dominant opinion at the time had been mistaken. He asserted that, since Flynn was a designated adviser to the president-elect at the time, his call to Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in December 2016 had been “perfectly appropriate and legitimate…. He was saying to the Russians, you know, ‘Don’t escalate.”
The Obama administration earlier had imposed sanctions in retribution for Russian meddling in the US election. When Russian president Vladimir Putin apparently took Flynn’s advice, the Russia controversy entered a new dimension. The rest of Barr’s reasoning for moving to vacate the charges of lying had to do with the timing of the FBI interviews that produced them.
It took pages of interview transcript to lay out Barr’s reasoning in the intricate matter. Even then his argument was less than a convincing job. When Herridge pointedly asked, “Did senior FBI officials conspire to throw out the national security adviser?,” Barr answered, “That’s a question that really has to wait an analysis of all the different episodes that occurred through the summer of 2016 and the first several months of President Trump’s administration.” Presumably that would be the review that Barr asked John Durham, US Attorney for Connecticut, to undertake. Durham’s assignment is understood to include an examination of the circumstances and events that led to the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
As previously noted, The Washington Post has reported that a third outside review, by John Huber, US Attorney for Utah, this one of the FBI’s investigation of the Clinton Foundation, has been completed, and awaits action by Barr.
One other first-person account by a participant in these events remains to appear, this one by a dispassionate newspaper reporter. Devlin Barrett was working for The Wall Street Journal when he obtained an interview, with assistant FBI director Andrew McCabe it turned out, in which the existence of the FBI’s investigation of the Clinton Foundation was confirmed for the first time. McCabe was subsequently fired for having made the disclosure. Barrett moved a few months later to The Washington Post and has remained an energetic contributor to the story ever since.
Barrett’s October Surprise: How the FBI Tried to Save Itself and Crashed an Election. (Public Affairs) is scheduled to appear in October. Its description on Amazon says this:
The 2016 Election, which altered American political history, was not decided by the Russians or in Ukraine or by Steve Bannon. The event that broke Hillary’s blue wall in the Midwest and swung Florida and North Carolina was an October Surprise, and it was wholly a product of the leadership of the FBI. This is the inside story by the reporter closest to its center….
October Surprise is a pulsating narrative of an agency seized with righteous certainty that waded into the most important political moment in the life of the nation, and has no idea how to back out with dignity. So it doggedly stands its ground, compounding its error. In a momentous display of self-preservation, James Comey, Andrew McCabe, and key Justice Department officials decide to protect their own reputations rather than save the democratic process. Once they make that determination, the race is lost for Clinton, who is helpless in front of their accusation even though she has not intended to commit, let alone actually committed, any crime.
A dark true-life thriller with historic consequences set at the most crucial moment in the electoral calendar, October Surprise is a warning, a morality tale and a political and personal tragedy.
Barrett believes, to judge from the flap copy, that the FBI cost Clinton the race. And, as a proximate cause, Comey’s letter notifying Congress that he had briefly reopened the investigation of her email probably did.
EP has argued from the beginning that various field offices of the FBI, as well as headquarters units, were torn, no less than the American electorate, by deep partisan divisions. Outsiders exploited these schisms with varying degrees of success.
Leadership sought to keep lids on warring factions, with profoundly mixed results. The November election will decide possession of the White House for the next four years, but neither Barr nor Durham nor Barrett will settle the battle over the FBI. Much remains to be learned