Attorney General William Barr today issued an apparent rebuke of President Trump’s efforts in recent weeks to hatch vague accusations of misconduct by former Obama administration officials.
Appearing alongside FBI Director Christopher Wray during a virtual news briefing at the Justice Department, Barr offered a lengthy series of remarks criticizing what he characterized as “increasing attempts to use the criminal justice system as a political weapon” over the past few decades.
“The legal tactic has been to gin up allegations of criminality by one’s political opponent based on the flimsiest of legal theories. This is not a good development. This is not good for our political life, and it’s not good for the criminal justice system,” Barr said, at times seemingly reading from a prepared statement.
“As long as I’m attorney general, the criminal justice system will not be used for partisan political ends,” he continued, “and this is especially true for the upcoming elections in November.”
Barr’s remarks come amid an escalating campaign by the White House, Republican lawmakers and the president’s allies in conservative media tying various senior officials within the Obama administration to alleged acts of impropriety in the FBI’s case against Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser.
Trump has repeatedly asserted, without evidence, that former President Obama and former Vice President Biden — his presumptive Democratic opponent in the 2020 general election opponent — were atop the purported scheme to punish Flynn and wound his administration.
The Trump administration last week declassified a list of Obama administration officials who requested Flynn’s name be “unmasked” in intelligence reports that included Biden.
The act of “unmasking,” which refers to the practice of disclosing the identity of a monitored person on an intelligence report, is not an uncommon practice.
Barr insisted today the United States cannot allow its electoral process “to be hijacked by efforts to drum up criminal investigations of either candidate,” emphasizing that “any effort to pursue an investigation of either candidate has to be approved by me.”
Barr — who last year appointed John Durham, the U.S. attorney for Connecticut, to probe the origins of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and potential coordination between the Russian government and the Trump campaign — also revealed it was unlikely that either Obama or Biden would be investigated by the Justice Department.
“Whatever their level of involvement, based on the information I have today, I don’t expect Mr. Durham’s work will lead to a criminal investigation of either man. Our concern over potential criminality is focused on others,” Barr said.
Trump responded that he was “surprised” by Barr’s statement.
“I think if it was me, they would do it. I think if for them, maybe, they’re not going to,” Trump told reporters this afternoon when asked about the attorney general’s comments. “I’m surprised because Obama knew everything that was happening. I think it’s just a continuation of a double standard. I am surprised by it.”
While Barr asserted he is moving aggressively to purge any political considerations from prosecutorial decisions, he has been accused of doing the president’s political bidding through recent interventions to lower the government’s sentencing recommendation for longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone and to abandon altogether the prosecution of Flynn, despite the guilty plea he offered to a false statement charge in 2017.
Both moves led to revolts by career government prosecutors assigned to those cases.
About 2,000 former Justice Department lawyers and other officials signed a letter last week urging Barr to resign over his actions in the Stone and Flynn cases.
In his remarks today, Barr faulted “the law enforcement and the intelligence apparatus of this county” for becoming involved in promoting “false and utterly baseless” claims that Trump colluded with Russia during the 2016 election.
Wray stood by silently during Barr’s comments.
The FBI chief has contended he moved quickly to institute reforms after learning of problems with the bureau’s surveillance programs.
He has also said that most of the senior FBI leaders involved in the Russia probe have either left the agency or were fired.