The White House on Sunday brushed aside congressional Democrats’ concerns about Atty. Gen. William Barr being handed extraordinary powers to declassify sensitive intelligence as part of a probe into the origins of the investigation into Russian efforts to sway the 2016 election.
Reflecting his anger over unflattering depictions of his actions in the report by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, including several episodes that might have constituted obstruction of justice, President Trump has authorized the attorney general to investigate the investigation. Trump and his allies have long insisted that the FBI improperly “spied” on his campaign.
Democrats already have accused Barr of trying to put the best possible face on Mueller’s findings and say they fear he will selectively release documents in an effort to undermine public confidence in the nation’s intelligence agencies and Mueller’s investigators.
Mueller’s report itself documents activities during the 2016 presidential campaign that caught the attention of U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies, including information passed along by Australian officials concerning a Trump campaign advisor, George Papadopoulos, who told an Australian diplomat that Democratic emails had been stolen by the Russians before the hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s computer system became public knowledge.
When Republicans had the majority in the House, Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Tulare) spent nearly two years investigating the same issues without producing evidence to back up Trump’s claims.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders insisted Sunday that the administration is not prejudging Barr’s findings, but expressed confidence, without offering proof, that he would be able to document “outrageous” corruption at the FBI.
“I’m not going to get ahead of what the final conclusion is, but we already know that there was a high level of corruption that was taking place,” Sanders, in Tokyo with the president on a state visit to Japan, told NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“That’s the reason that he’s granted the attorney general the authority to declassify that information – to look at all the documents necessary…so that we can get to the very bottom of what happened,” she said. “Once again, we already know about some wrongdoing.”
Congressional Democrats have sharply questioned whether the administration is acting in good faith. Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), who presently chairs the House Intelligence Committee, said the president’s decision, announced on the eve of the Memorial Day weekend, allowed Trump and Barr to “weaponize law enforcement and classified information against their political enemies.”
Trump allies denied that the president’s actions in any way undermined the core missions of the intelligence community.
“We’re not compromising national security here,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has emerged as one of Trump’s staunchest congressional defenders. Graham, interviewed on “Fox News Sunday,” said that he believed Barr “can be trusted” not to manipulate information in the president’s favor.
“The people who are worried about this are worried about being exposed for taking the law into their own hands,” said Graham, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Trump himself defended Barr’s review, saying before he left for Japan that it was not meant to avenge himself on political opponents.
“It’s not payback – I don’t care about payback,” he told reporters. “I think it’s very important for our country to find out what happened.”
The push by the White House to investigate those who investigated the president comes against the backdrop of across-the-board resistance by Trump to congressional oversight. At least a dozen separate battles are playing out over congressional subpoenas of documents and individuals on matters including the Mueller report and Trump’s tax returns.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco so far has resisted calls by some Democratic lawmakers to open impeachment proceedings against the president, especially if he continues to reject Congress’ authority to carry out investigations of the president’s conduct and finances. She argues that impeachment remains premature, although she has accused Trump of a “cover-up.”
An early backer of impeachment, Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) said Sunday she believed that Pelosi eventually would relent.
“I think it’s moving toward that,” she said on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” adding that “the traditional congressional oversight process isn’t working.”
The chairman of the Democratic caucus, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, defended Pelosi’s go-slow approach, saying that for now, investigating Trump “methodically yet aggressively” was the best approach, while simultaneously working to advance the Democrats’ legislative agenda.
“Democrats can sing and dance at the same time, just like Beyonce,” he said on NBC. “We will not overreach. We will not over-investigate,” he added.
On the Republican side, however, there was increasing willingness to echo Trump’s call for drastic punishment of law enforcement figures who helped move the investigation forward.
Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, interviewed on ABC’s “This Week,” said the origins of Mueller’s investigation were suspect because statements by FBI agents during the 2016 campaign sounded “a whole lot like a coup.”
She was referring in part to texts critical of Trump that were exchanged by two bureau officials, including former agent Peter Strzok, who was removed from the Mueller probe when the messages came to light and subsequently forced out, and lawyer Lisa Page, who has also left the FBI.
“It could well be treason,” Cheney said.
Cheney’s comments drew an irate riposte on Sunday from Preet Bharara, who was fired by Trump as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. Legal experts have pointed out that the Constitution says treason consists of “levying war against” the United States or giving “aid and comfort” to its enemies.
“Elected officials keep making casual, ignorant, idiotic accusations of ‘treason.’ … Just saw Liz Cheney do it,” Bharara wrote on Twitter. “Read the Constitution.”