Attorney General William Barr’s nearly hour-long interview with CBS News’ Jan Crawford last week was full of fascinating details about the special counsel probe, the debunked Russia collusion theory that roiled Washington for years, and Barr’s investigation into how the FBI and Department of Justice used the “bogus” theory to investigate the Trump campaign.
The interview was downplayed by the media, which is implicated in perpetuating the Russia hoax Barr is investigating, and which came in for criticism from Barr for its failure to care about violations of civil liberties. Here are the top 28 take-aways from the interview.
1. Mueller ‘Could Have Reached a Conclusion’
Crawford, whose questions revealed a command of the facts not demonstrated by many of her mainstream media peers, asked Barr about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s decision to outline 11 instances where President Trump’s frustration at falsely being accused of treason could amount to “possible obstruction” followed by a refusal to decide whether they did.
Barr explained that the Office of Legal Counsel opinion that prevents presidents from being indicted was no barrier to making a conclusion about obstruction. “Right, he could have reached a conclusion,” Barr said, noting that he and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein concluded that Trump had not obstructed justice.
“[W]hen he didn’t make a decision, the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and I felt it was necessary for us as the heads of the Department to reach that decision,” Barr said. “That is what the Department of Justice does, that is why we have the compulsory powers like a grand jury to force people to give us evidence so that we can determine whether a crime has committed and in order to legitimate the process we felt we had to reach a decision.”
2. DOJ Not an ‘Adjunct to Congress’
Mueller received praise from the media for, they said, subtly asking Congress to impeach the president for, apparently, his frustration with falsely being accused of being a traitor. Barr was less enamored of this idea.
“Well, I am not sure what he was suggesting but, you know, the Department of Justice doesn’t use our powers of investigating crimes as an adjunct to Congress. Congress is a separate branch of government and they can, you know, they have processes, we have our processes. Ours are related to the criminal justice process. We are not an extension of Congress’s investigative powers,” he said.
3. Mueller’s Guilty Until Proven Innocent Standard ‘Not The Standard We Use’ At DOJ
Mueller’s refusal to determine whether President Trump had obstructed justice by making hiring and firing decisions or complaining about false accusations he had conspired with Russia to steal the 2016 election was one problem. The other was that Mueller flipped the standard prosecutorial approach on its head, Barr said.
“[H]e also said that he could not say that the president clearly did not violate the law, which of course is not the standard we use at the department. We have to determine whether there is clear violation of the law, and so we applied the standards we would normally apply. We analyzed the law and the facts and a group of us spent a lot of time doing that and determined that both as a matter of law, many of the instances would not amount to obstruction,” Barr said.
4. Mueller’s Obstruction Theories ‘Did Not Reflect The Views’ of DOJ
Barr said the legal analysis in the special counsel’s obstruction report “did not reflect the views of the department” and were the “views of a particular lawyer or lawyers.” He went on to explain that firing James Comey, for example, is a “facially valid exercise of core presidential authority.”
Even if you don’t accept that presidents have the right to fire incompetent employees, to show obstruction the firing would have to have the probable effect of sabotaging a proceeding and be done with corrupt intent.
“[T]he report itself points out that one of the likely motivations here was the president’s frustration with Comey saying something publicly and saying a different thing privately and refusing to correct the record. So that would not have been a corrupt intent. So for each of these episodes we thought long and hard about it, we looked at the facts and we didn’t feel the government could establish obstruction in these cases,” Barr explained.
5. Barr Doesn’t Care about ‘Hyper-Partisan’ Complaints
Asked about the criticism he’s received from the media and other partisans, Barr said, “Well, we live in a hyper-partisan age where people no longer really pay attention to the substance of what’s said but as to who says it and what side they’re on and what its political ramifications are. The Department of Justice is all about the law, and the facts and the substance, and I’m going to make the decisions based on the law and the facts. And I realize that’s in tension with the political climate we live in because people are more interested in getting their way politically. so I think it just goes with the territory of being the attorney general in a hyper-partisan period of time.”
6. Barr ‘Surprised’ by Mueller Not Providing Report Ready to Release
Barr explained that he wrote a four-page summary of Mueller’s 400-page report because Mueller failed to provide a report that was ready to release to the American public. In conversations in the weeks leading up to Mueller’s report delivery, Barr repeatedly requested that the grand jury information be highlighted so it could be quickly redacted by Justice Department officials.
Instead, the report included no highlighting of which portions were from grand jury information, which must be redacted by law. That meant it would be weeks before the report would be made public, at a time when former intelligence officials were making false claims about the Mueller report.
Barr said he wrote the four-page summary:
because I didn’t think the body politic would allow us to go on radio silence for four weeks. I mean, people were camped outside my house and the department and every — there was all kinds of wild speculation going on. Former senior intelligence officials who were purporting to have it, or intimating that they had inside information were suggesting that the president and his family were going to be indicted and so forth. Saying that publicly. There was all kind of wild and — Yes, and it was wild and irresponsible speculation going on which the very — Right, and talking heads and things like that, and these things affect the United States’ ability to function in the world.
We have an economy. It could affect the economy. It can affect, it can affect our foreign relations during very delicate period of time with, you know, serious adversaries in the world. So I felt that in order to buy time, in order to get the report out, I had to state the bottom line just like you’re announcing a verdict in a case. My purpose there was not to summarize every jot and tittle of the report and every, you know, angle that, that Mueller looked into. But, just state the bottom line, which I did in the four-page memo.
7. Mueller Letter Complaining About Lack of Impeachment Narrative Was ‘A Little Snitty and Staff-Driven’
Someone within the special counsel’s office leaked to The New York Times a letter complaining that Barr’s four-page summary set the media narrative differently than they would have preferred. Barr said he was surprised Mueller “didn’t pick up the phone and call me given our 30-year relationship” and that he felt “the letter was a little snitty and staff-driven.” He reiterated his preference to have the full report released so that everyone could determine “what Bob’s reasoning was.”
8. No ‘Discrepancy’ on OLC Opinion
In a press conference, and in his report, Mueller claimed to believe that an Office of Legal Counsel opinion about presidents not being able to be indicted meant that he couldn’t even analyze whether Trump’s frustration at years of false allegations that he was a traitor constituted obstruction.
Previously, Barr said Mueller had assured him that the OLC opinion had not been the reason he hadn’t determined Trump obstructed justice. The two put out a joint statement saying that there was no discrepancy between what they were saying. Barr explained that Mueller did not even analyze whether there was a crime.
9. Response to Russia Threats Troubling
If intelligence officials were “alarmed” by the Russia threats as early as April 2016, as they claimed, “Surely the response should have been more than just, you know, dangling a confidential informant in front of a peripheral player in the Trump campaign.”
10. FBI’s Wray ‘Very Supportive’ of Investigation Into Russia Probe
Barr said he and FBI Director Christopher Wray have “discussed how important it is that that not be allowed to happen and we are both very cognizant of that … he is being very supportive and we’re working together on, you know, trying to reconstruct what happened. People have to understand, you know, one of the things here is that these efforts in 2016, these counter-intelligence activities that were directed at the Trump campaign, were not done in the normal course and not through the normal procedures as a far as I can tell. And a lot of the people who were involved are no longer there.”
11. Spying Is Spying
Crawford noted that Barr has received criticism for referring to the widespread surveillance of the Trump campaign as “spying.” Barr responded, “Yeah, I mean, I guess it’s become a dirty word somehow. It hasn’t ever been for me. I think there is nothing wrong with spying, the question is always whether it is authorized by law and properly predicated and if it is, then it’s an important tool the United States has to protect the country.”
12. Words Don’t Need to Be Retired Because Trump Uses Them
“[S]ome former intelligence chiefs have said that the president has made that word somewhat pejorative, that there is spying, this is a witch hunt, this is a hoax, and so your use of that word makes it seem that you are being a loyalist,” Crawford said. Barr responded, “You know, it’s part of the craziness of the modern day that if a president uses a word, then all of a sudden it becomes off bounds. It’s a perfectly good English word, I will continue to use it.”
13. Law Enforcement and Intelligence Should Not Meddle In Elections
“And look, I think if we — we are worried about foreign influence in the campaign? We should be because the heart of our system is the peaceful transfer of power through elections and what gives the government legitimacy is that process. And if foreign elements can come in and affect it, that’s bad for the republic,” Barr said.
“But by the same token, it’s just as, it’s just as dangerous to the continuation of self-government and our republican system, republic that we not allow government power, law enforcement or intelligence power, to play a role in politics, to intrude into politics, and affect elections,” Barr said. Asked which interference is more troubling, Barr said they both are.
14. Government Officials Should Not Become a ‘Praetorian Guard’
When discussing actions taken against the Trump campaign, Barr referenced the Roman Army’s elite unit that interfered in politics, even overthrowing emperors.
“[R]epublics have fallen because of Praetorian Guard mentality, where government officials get very arrogant, they identify the national interest with their own political preferences and they feel that anyone who has a different opinion, you know, is somehow an enemy of the state. And you know, there is that tendency that they know better and that, you know, they’re there to protect as guardians of the people. That can easily translate into essentially supervening the will of the majority and getting your own way as a government official.”
15. Use of Spy Tools Against Political Campaigns a ‘Serious Red Line’
Asked if he was concerned that a Praetorian Guard mentality had set in in 2016, Barr said, “Well, I just think it has to be carefully looked at because the use of foreign intelligence capabilities and counterintelligence capabilities against an American political campaign to me is unprecedented and it’s a serious red line that’s been crossed.”
16. AG Must Protect Against Abuse of Government Power
“[O]ne of the key responsibilities of the attorney general, core responsibilities of the attorney general is to make sure that government power is not abused and that the right of Americans are not transgressed by abusive government power,” Barr said. “That’s the responsibility of the attorney general.”
17. Looking Into Process for Counterintelligence Activities Against Trump Campaign
In a sea of media complacency about the use of counterintelligence activities against the Trump campaign, Barr seeks answers.
I think it’s important to understand what basis there was for launching counterintelligence activities against a political campaign, which is the core of our … First Amendment liberties in this country. And what was the predicate for it? What was the hurdle that had to be crossed? What was the process- who had to approve it? And including the electronic surveillance, whatever electronic surveillance was done. And was everyone operating in their proper lane? … And we’re working closely with the intelligence agencies, the bureau and the agency and others to help us reconstruct what happened. And I want to see, what were the standards that were applied. What was the evidence? What were the techniques used? Who approved them? Was there a legitimate basis for it?
18. Details on Other Investigations
Barr explained that the inspector general is only looking “at a discrete area that is — that is you know, important, which is the use of electronic surveillance that was targeted at Carter Page.” Page endured a year of heavy surveillance from the federal government, which told a secret court that he was an agent of Russia. The year of surveillance found no crimes committed by Page, who is now suing to restore his reputation.
Barr explained that he didn’t have the inspector general expand his probe to cover the other areas because of his limited powers: “He doesn’t have the power to compel testimony, he doesn’t have the power really to investigate beyond the current cast of characters at the Department of Justice. His ability to get information from former officials or from other agencies outside the department is very limited.”
Of John Huber, the U.S. attorney who was reportedly looking at FISA abuse, Barr said he “stood back and put that on hold while the Office of Inspector General was conducting its review,” only waiting for criminal referrals. However, Barr said he’s also working on issues that “relate to Hillary Clinton” and are concluding.
19. Media Supposed to Be ‘Watchdogs’ of ‘Our Civil Liberties’
Barr said that when he joined the Central Intelligence Agency 50 years ago during the Vietnam and Civil Rights era, there was a ton of concern about investigation of domestic political activities.
[W]hen was it appropriate for intelligence agencies, the FBI too was under investigation. You know, the penetration of civil rights groups because at the time there was concerns about contacts with, you know, communist funded front groups and things like that and you know how deeply could you get into civil rights groups or anti-Vietnam war groups. A lot of these groups were in contact with foreign adversaries, they had some contact with front organizations and so forth and there were a lot of rules put in place and those rules are under the attorney general. The attorney general’s responsibility is to make sure that these powers are not used to tread upon First Amendment activity and that certainly was a big part of my formative years of dealing with those issues. The fact that today people just seem to brush aside the idea that it is okay to you know, to engage in these activities against a political campaign is stunning to me especially when the media doesn’t seem to think that it’s worth looking into. They’re supposed to be the watchdogs of, you know, our civil liberties.
20. Answers on Trump Campaign Surveillance Not ‘Satisfactory’
Barr declined to weigh in on specifics, but said, “Like many other people who are familiar with intelligence activities, I had a lot of questions about what was going on. I assumed I’d get answers when I went in and I have not gotten answers that are well satisfactory, and in fact probably have more questions, and that some of the facts that, that I’ve learned don’t hang together with the official explanations of what happened.”
Pressed to explain further, Barr said, “That’s all I really will say. Things are just not jiving.”
21. Failures Not in Rank and File But ‘Upper Echelon’
Barr had previously said that the abnormal procedures taken against the Trump campaign didn’t take place among the rank and file of the bureau, but among the upper echelon. Asked to explain, he said, “Because I think the activities were undertaken by a small group at the top which is one of the, probably one of the mistakes that has been made instead of running this as a normal bureau investigation or counterintelligence investigation. It was done by the executives at the senior level. Out of headquarters.”
22. 2016 Meddling ‘Antithetical to the Democratic System’
Barr was generous about the wrongdoing perpetrated by government actors, saying no one may have intended to undermine the republic by surveilling political opponents.
I’m not suggesting that people did what they did necessarily because of conscious, nefarious motives. Sometimes people can convince themselves that what they’re doing is in the higher interest, the better good. They don’t realize that what they’re doing is really antithetical to the democratic system that we have. They start viewing themselves as the guardians of the people that are more informed and insensitive than everybody else. They can — in their own mind, they can have those kinds of motives. And sometimes they can look at evidence and facts through a biased prism that they themselves don’t realize.
Barr did not specifically cite fired FBI director Comey, whose 2018 defense of his tenure is titled “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership.” Comey was strongly criticized in an inspector general report for failing to follow departmental procedures in his handling of the Hillary Clinton case regarding mishandling classified information.
Barr said of those who justify their actions, “That something objectively as applied as a neutral principle across the board really, you know, shouldn’t be the standard used in the case but because they have a particular bias they don’t see that. So that’s why procedures and standards are important and review afterward is an important way of making sure that government power is being conscientiously and properly applied. It doesn’t necessarily mean that there are people — you know, that people have crossed lines have done so with corrupt intent or anything like that.”
23. ‘Gross Bias’ of FBI Agents ‘Appalling,’ Would Be Roundly Condemned If about Obama
Barr said of the virulently anti-Trump texts that have been previously released:
Well it’s hard to read some of the texts with and not feel that there was gross bias at work and they’re appalling…. Those were appalling. And on their face they were very damning and I think if the shoe was on the other foot we could be hearing a lot about it. If those kinds of discussions were held you know when Obama first ran for office, people talking about Obama in those tones and suggesting that ‘Oh that he might be a Manchurian candidate for Islam or something like that.’ You know some wild accusations like that and you had that kind of discussion back and forth, you don’t think we would be hearing a lot more about it?
24. Russia Collusion Conspiracy Theory Was ‘Bogus’
Crawford said Comey may say the investigation into Trump had to be closely held because it was so extraordinary. Barr said, “Well it might be legit under certain circumstances but a lot of that has to do with how good the evidence was at that point. And you know Mueller has spent two and half years and the fact is there is no evidence of a conspiracy. So it was bogus, this whole idea that the Trump was in cahoots with the Russians is bogus.”
25. Media In No Place to ‘Wring Hands’ about Barr’s Declassification Authority
Barr said that he asked President Trump for the authority to declassify documents dealing with the Russia investigation, as well as the direction that other agencies support his efforts to investigate the probe. He said the other agencies are being supportive.
Of media concerns about the transparency, Barr said,
I’m amused by these people who make a living by disclosing classified information, including the names of intelligence operatives, wringing their hands about whether I’m going to be responsible in protecting intelligence sources and methods. I’ve been in the business, as I’ve said, for over 50 years, long before they were born and I know how to handle classified information and I believe strongly in protecting intelligence sources and methods. But at the same time if there is information that can be shared with the American people without jeopardizing intelligence sources and methods that decision should be made and because I will be involved in finding out what the story was I think I’m in the best decision to make that decision.
He said the media reaction is strange. “Normally the media would be interested in letting the sunshine in and finding out what the truth is. And usually the media doesn’t care that much about protecting intelligence sources and methods. But I do and I will.”
26. Barr Expected Criticism for Upholding Rule of Law
Crawford noted Barr’s sterling reputation before he began his second round as attorney general. He previously served in the George H.W. Bush administration. He said he expected criticism from partisans.
I realize we live in a crazy hyper-partisan period of time and I knew that it would only be a matter of time if I was behaving responsibly and calling them as I see them, that I would be attacked because nowadays people don’t care about the merits and the substance. They only care about who it helps, who benefits, whether my side benefits or the other side benefits, everything is gauged by politics. And as I say, that’s antithetical to the way the department runs, and any attorney general in this period is going to end up losing a lot of political capital, and I realize that and that is one of the reasons that I ultimately was persuaded that I should take it on because I think at my stage in life it really doesn’t make any difference.
27. ‘Everyone Dies’
Asked if he worried about his reputation, Barr said, “Yeah, but everyone dies and I am not, you know, I don’t believe in the Homeric idea that you know, immortality comes by, you know, having odes sung about you over the centuries, you know?” He added that he didn’t regret taking the job.
28. Resistance Is ‘Shredding Our Institutions’
Barr said he’d rather be back to his old life, but that he loves the Justice Department and the FBI: “I think it’s important that we not, in this period of intense partisan feeling, destroy our institutions. I think one of the ironies today is that people are saying that it’s President Trump that’s shredding our institutions. I really see no evidence of that — it is hard, and I really haven’t seen bill of particulars as to how that’s being done. From my perspective, the idea of resisting a democratically elected president and basically throwing everything at him and, you know, really changing the norms on the grounds that we have to stop this president, that is where the shredding of our norms and our institutions is occurring.”