In the summer of 2016, an Australian diplomat told the FBI about a conversation he had with George Papadopoulos, an aide to the Donald Trump campaign. He said that according to Papadopoulos, Russia made an offer to help the campaign by releasing stolen Democratic emails. The bureau did the right thing in moving to investigate. Anything less would have been a failure to perform its duty.
As the lengthy report by Robert Mueller, the special counsel, shows, there were numerous contacts between Russia and the Trump campaign. If the contacts did not amount to a criminal conspiracy, they were worthy of examination and exposure. As the Mueller report makes plain, the contacts were part of the extensive Russian intervention in the 2016 presidential campaign — with the emerging objective of helping the Trump candidacy.
All of that hasn’t stopped President Trump from harshly criticizing the FBI and the intelligence community for pursuing “an illegal coup,” or engaging in “treason.” He has portrayed himself as a target of the “deep state.” On Thursday, he went a step further. He gave William Barr, the attorney general, sweeping authority to review how the investigators conducted their investigation, including the power to declassify intelligence documents on his own.
The idea of scrutinizing the work of the FBI and the CIA is sound. They should expect as much. Yet this effort comes in a larger context — beyond the blustery spin of the president. The power of declassification amounts to controlling the narrative, and the attorney general already has sparked reasons to worry. For instance, he has joined the president in using the loaded word “spying” to describe how the Trump campaign was investigated.
More, after Barr described the findings of the Mueller investigation, the careful Mueller disputed they way he did so. Will the attorney general use this latest opportunity to serve the president’s political aims?
There are other risks. Analysts worry that intelligence sources and assets may be vulnerable to exposure, potentially leading to less trust and a diminished flow of information. The president has grumbled about the roles of Britain and Australia in the investigation. Here, too, trust with allies and partners could erode along with intelligence sharing and, ultimately, national security.
It is worth noting that the authority granted to Barr coincides with other investigations into the origins of the FBI and CIA examinations of the Russian intervention. During his time as attorney general, Jeff Sessions asked the Justice Department inspector general to look into potential abuses by federal investigators. Sessions also asked the U.S. attorney in Utah to pursue any criminal conduct, and now that work has become part of a Barr-initiated examination, led by the U.S. attorney in Connecticut.
So the moment isn’t lacking eyes on the investigators. There also is much the public already knows, starting but not limited to the Mueller report. For instance, the surveillance of Carter Page, another Trump adviser, moved ahead with the approval of the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Court. In other words, a judge provided an independent OK, backed by voluminous documentation. So did Rod Rosenstein, then the deputy attorney general and a Trump appointee.
Many commentators have argued that if the FBI or CIA wanted to undermine the Trump campaign, aspects of the investigation would have leaked. But little surfaced except for the intelligence agencies warning in October 2016 about Russia seeking to intervene in the election.
Which gets to another bit of context: This was first and foremost about Russia, about a foreign adversary seeking to mess with a presidential election. In doing their work, investigators encountered representatives of the Trump campaign. They correctly asked: What is that all about?