As Washington blew up last week over President Trump’s campaign to pressure Ukraine into becoming a disinformation arm of the GOP, his attorney general was nowhere to be found.
In fact, Bill Barr was not in the United States, but rather in Italy.
Multiple news outlets reported on Monday that Barr’s Italy trip focused on urging the country’s officials to help his Justice Department investigate the origins of the Trump-Russia investigation for an effort that appears aligned with long-festering conspiracy theories on the matter. The campaign to squeeze foreign countries for information that would discredit Robert Mueller’s investigation also extended to a July 29 meeting that Barr had in London with British officials.
Barr’s involvement is an unprecedented step for a Justice Department that is already uncomfortably close to the President’s decision to bend the U.S. foreign policy apparatus into an instrument of his 2020 reelection bid, according to experts. The attorney general already misled the public about the results of the Mueller report, and now his foreign trips represent an effort to discredit that very investigation.
“It smacks of the political,” former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan Barb McQuade told TPM. “If you’re traveling around the world at the request of the President to try to disprove the theory that Russia interfered with our election to make his 2016 election appear more legitimate, that strikes me as at least unusual.”
In a statement, DOJ spokeswoman Kerri Kupec downplayed Barr’s direct involvement, instead focusing on the work of U.S. Attorney for Connecticut John Durham in leading the inquiry.
“Mr. Durham is gathering information from numerous sources, including a number of foreign countries,” the statement reads. “At Attorney General Barr’s request, the President has contacted other countries to ask them to introduce the Attorney General and Mr. Durham to appropriate officials.”
Yet, Barr’s summer travel schedule indicates that the attorney general has been personally involved in the effort.
The locuses of Barr’s interest — London, Rome, and a phone call between Trump and the Australian prime minister — hew to the July 2016 opening of a counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign and align with right wing counternarratives about the investigation.
The Russia probe began after Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos drunkenly told Australia’s ambassador to the United Kingdom that the Russian government had inside dirt on the Clinton campaign. The Australian government then reported the information to the FBI.
Papadopoulos learned of the Russian “dirt” from a Rome-based Maltese professor named Joseph Mifsud, who evaded a potential FBI interview after Papadopoulos lied to investigators about his interactions with him, for which Papadopoulos was later prosecuted.
The sequence of events has led to right wing theories that Mifsud was secretly a Western intelligence operative sent to entrap Papadopoulos in a bid to tarnish the Trump campaign. Barr’s focus in traveling to Italy appears could be related to attempts to probe that claim, or at least find out more about the mysterious professor.
The Daily Beast reported on Tuesday that Barr and Durham focused on Mifsud in meetings with Italian officials. The news outlet cited one source as saying that the pair were played a tape of a deposition that Mifsud gave in which he explained why he believed himself to be in danger.
Barr would not be the first attorney general in living memory to carry out politically motivated acts that could benefit his boss.
Watergate-era Attorney General John Mitchell served 19 months in prison for obstruction and perjury charges related to the scandal. More recently, George Bush-era Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was forced to resign after presiding over the firing of U.S. attorneys who were politically independent.
Gonzales did not reply to repeated requests for comment from TPM asking for his thoughts on Barr’s conduct.
But nonetheless, Barr’s travels struck experts as out of the ordinary.
Nick Akerman, a former special prosecutor on the Watergate team, told TPM that “the idea of an attorney general running around and doing this stuff is absurd.”
“That is not what an attorney general does,” Akerman said. “It’s usually high-level policy — making sure the U.S. attorneys offices are going after the right kinds of cases, not going to foreign governments and trying to get them to undermine the intelligence community’s findings on the Russia investigation.”
McQuade, the former U.S. attorney, noted that attorneys general tend to be “very busy managing the Department,” and said that reports of Barr’s direct involvement were “unusual.”
“You’re running a cabinet agency and don’t have time to get involved in an investigation, which makes it seem somewhat politically motivated,” McQuade said.
She added that the meeting with Italian officials in itself was not problematic — the Justice Department conducts that kind of outreach all the time, and attorneys general may sometimes use the meetings to draw attention to certain cases.
“But traveling around the world to get information on a particular case would strike me as highly unusual,” she added.