Three years ago, President Donald Trump appeared to be politically wounded and legally encircled. On May 17, 2017, eight days after Trump had fired James Comey, then the F.B.I. director, Robert Mueller was appointed as special counsel, to investigate ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. Memos written by Comey stated that Trump had asked him to “let go” of the F.B.I. investigation of Michael Flynn, Trump’s national-security adviser, who had been fired after he lied to Vice-President Mike Pence and other officials about the nature of a phone call that he’d had with the Russian Ambassador. As 2017 came to a close, Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to F.B.I. agents about the call and agreed to serve as a coöperating witness for Mueller’s investigation. Trump’s effort to flout post-Watergate reforms, which were designed to prevent a President from pressuring the F.B.I. into halting a politically embarrassing investigation, appeared to have failed.
Yet now, six months before he faces reëlection, Trump, with the help of Attorney General William Barr, is successfully rewriting that history. Last Thursday, Barr dismissed the charges against Flynn, declaring him the victim of an F.B.I. plot. (The federal judge who oversaw Flynn’s case said that he would appoint a retired judge to review Barr’s action, and whether Flynn should now be charged with perjury.) At Barr’s direction, the Justice Department is conducting a criminal investigation of Comey, the F.B.I. officials who investigated the Trump campaign, and the C.I.A. officials who concluded that Russia had intervened in the 2016 election on Trump’s behalf. Barr is flatly rejecting the findings of Mueller and the Justice Department’s inspector general: that the F.B.I was justified in investigating the highly unusual contacts between the Trump campaign and a hostile foreign government—which did, in fact, intervene in the race on Trump’s behalf—and that Trump and his aides had welcomed that aid and repeatedly lied about their own actions.
Instead, Barr, in an extraordinary act by an Attorney General, declared, last month, that the F.B.I. investigation of the Trump campaign was “without any basis,” an attempt to “sabotage the Presidency,” and “one of the greatest travesties in American history.” He added, in reference to his department’s new investigation—but without citing any specifics—that “the evidence shows that we are not dealing with just mistakes or sloppiness” but that “there was something far more troubling here.” Those statements violated a long-standing Justice Department practice of not commenting on investigations before they have been completed. In a subsequent interview, Barr hinted that he might release the results of the ongoing probe, led by a federal prosecutor, John Durham, before the election. Barr said that a Justice Department policy prohibiting prosecutors from filing criminal charges or taking investigative steps to impact elections did not apply. “The idea is you don’t go after candidates,” Barr said. “But, you know, as I say, I don’t think any of the people whose actions are under review by Durham fall into that category.”
On Wednesday, the acting director of National Intelligence, Richard Grenell, gave Republican senators records he had declassified that listed the names of three dozen Obama Administration officials, including Joe Biden, who requested to know the identity of an American citizen who had had a series of phone calls with foreign officials after Trump won the election. The citizen was Flynn. On Wednesday, those senators released the names of the officials and accused the former Vice-President of participating in a plot to entrap Flynn. Former national-security officials said that it is routine to request, or “unmask,” the names of Americans whose conversations with foreign officials contain intelligence, and noted that the practice has increased by seventy-five per cent under Trump. Ben Rhodes, a former top Obama adviser, tweeted, “The unconfirmed, acting DNI using his position to criminalize routine intelligence work to help re-elect the president and obscure Russian intervention in our democracy would normally be the scandal here.” Grenell replied in a tweet, “Transparency is not political. But I will give you that it isn’t popular in Washington DC.
Next Tuesday, the Senate Intelligence Committee is expected to approve the nomination of John Ratcliffe, a pro-Trump Republican congressman from Texas, to replace Grenell as the director of National Intelligence. Ratcliffe caught Trump’s eye when he assailed Mueller on national television during the former special counsel’s testimony before Congress. An individual involved in Ratcliffe’s confirmation effort said that “the fact that the President trusts Congressman Ratcliffe—not because they are friends but because he’s observed his good judgment and the way he handles himself—that affords a great opportunity to strengthen the relationship between the President and the intelligence community.”
Former Justice Department and intelligence officials have expressed alarm at Trump’s success at appointing partisan loyalists who they say echo the Presidents political messaging. David Laufman, a former head of the Justice Department’s counterintelligence section, who worked on the Trump-Russia investigation, told me, “I think we need to be careful not to be too lackadaisical in recognizing the significance of what is happening throughout our government, not just in law enforcement and intelligence but the attempted politicization of our public health system,” citing attacks by Trump supporters on Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the government’s top infectious-disease experts. “It’s everywhere, and it matters in ways that are increasingly important to the well-being of people in our country.”