Attorney General's Actions To Change The Perception Of The Russia Investigation

May 12, 2020
Originally published on May 12, 2020 8:13 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It's possible that when the history books are written about President Donald Trump's second attorney general, William Barr, they will focus on his efforts to reshape perceptions of one of the most high-profile investigations the Justice Department has worked on in these last few years - the investigation into whether Russia interfered in the 2016 election. There may be whole chapters written about Barr's decisions on cases that center on close associates of the president, including the latest twist - his move to drop the case against Trump's first national security adviser, Michael Flynn.

NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas has been there for every step of this long and twisty path. Hey, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hi there.

KELLY: So let's start there. Put Barr's decision to drop the Flynn case into the broader context of Barr's approach to the Russia investigation.

LUCAS: So did Barr said in his confirmation hearing a little over a year ago that he would let the Mueller probe play out, and he did. It wrapped up about a year ago. But since then, he has taken actions that have consistently had the effect basically of kind of unwinding some of the work that Mueller and his team did. We do know that, of course, Barr has been skeptical of this investigation from the beginning, so this isn't an entire surprise. But the decision to drop the Flynn case is probably the latest and most glaring example of these actions that he's taken over the past year to kind of unwind the work that Muller's done.

KELLY: And worth noting that whatever one's view of this decision, it is a fact that it is highly unusual for the Justice Department to drop a case against someone who, like Flynn, has pleaded guilty.

LUCAS: It is unusual. And former prosecutors, folks in the legal community who I've spoken with have all said this is an incredibly unusual thing to do. And on top of that, what the Justice Department said in its filing to the court to try to get this case dropped was that it wouldn't be able to prove the case against Flynn despite the fact that he had twice stood up in court and pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his communications with the Russian ambassador.

KELLY: So put this into the context of the broader Russia investigation and how it has played out these last several years because as you point out, the Flynn case is the latest, possibly most glaring example of how Barr has sought to undermine that broader investigation.

LUCAS: Well, certainly, his critics would point to his handling of the rollout of the Mueller investigation, the summary that he originally wrote and then his handling when the redacted version came out, feeling that he basically baked in a narrative that was favorable to the president at the time. There's also his handling of the Roger Stone case, President Trump's longtime informal adviser. He overruled career prosecutors in their sentencing recommendation to recommend a lighter sentence for Stone. Former prosecutors felt that basically, this was Barr putting his thumbs on the scale to help out a friend of the president. Barr would say that was not the case. And then another key decision would have been Barr's decision to appoint U.S. Attorney John Durham to investigate the origins of the Russia investigation.

KELLY: Oh, yes.

LUCAS: That was another big decision.

KELLY: This was the investigation of the investigators, as I recall.

LUCAS: Exactly.

KELLY: And the Justice Department's internal watchdog, the inspector general, also was looking at the early stages of the Russia probe - right? - and did find some problems with it.

LUCAS: He did. He found problems with the FBI surveillance of a former Trump campaign aide. But the inspector general also found that the FBI properly opened the investigation into the Trump campaign, that it was properly predicated.

KELLY: So many developments here. You're reminding us in a nutshell that it has not been a boring time to cover the Justice Department.

LUCAS: Far from it.

KELLY: ...These last couple of years. No. But where does this leave things now in terms of the relationship between Bill Barr, the Justice Department he's leading, Trump and outstanding questions still about what happened with Russia and the 2016 election?

LUCAS: Certainly, there are tensions within the Justice Department about Barr's leadership. There are people within the Justice Department and people who are - used to be part of the Justice Department who look at his leadership and have problems with how he's doing this. They feel that he has put his thumb on the scale to help out friends of the president.

Now, on the conservative side of the spectrum, Barr is winning plaudits for what he's done. People feel that the decision he made in the Flynn case was the right decision to make. In particular, they feel that Flynn was essentially unfairly targeted by the FBI. And that plays into their broader view of the Russia investigation and the feeling that it was a hoax, which, of course, is what the president feels. These are hyper-partisan times that we're living in, and this sort of interpretation that one has of Bill Barr and his work as attorney general is often seen through the lens of the Russia investigation for better or worse.

KELLY: And what's so fascinating, Ryan, to an outsider looking in on all of this is that the case that Barr is making for dropping the case against Gen. Flynn is that this is about supporting the rule of law, making sure that the rule of law is enforced, which is exactly the point his critics are making. They say that this action by Barr does the exact opposite, that it's completely undermining the rule of law.

LUCAS: Both sides want one standard of justice. Just neither side sees it happening right now.

KELLY: NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas trying to put everything in context for us there. Thank you, Ryan.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.