Barr Makes Excuses for Election Sabotage. Again.

(Bloomberg Opinion) — He did it again.

Over the course of a long, nasty hearing in the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday, Attorney General William Barr was asked about the appropriateness of foreign interference in a U.S. election. His answer should send alarms ringing across the nation. 

Barr had the following exchange with Representative David Cicilline, Democrat of Rhode Island:

Cicilline: Is it ever appropriate, Sir, for the president to solicit or accept foreign assistance in an election?

Barr: It depends what kind of assistance.

Cicilline: Is it ever appropriate for the president or presidential candidate to accept or solicit foreign assistance of any kind in his or her election?

Barr: No, it’s not appropriate.

Cicilline no doubt repeated his question for a simple reason: Barr’s initial answer was flagrantly wrong.  Accepting foreign assistance is expressly illegal. And if it’s illegal, it’s also inappropriate.

Foreigners are not only prohibited from contributing a “thing of value” to a U.S. campaign, they are prohibited from making any expenditure at all “in connection with any federal, state or local election in the United States.” Those prohibitions are the cornerstone of what the Federal Election Commission calls the “broad prohibition on foreign national activity” in American elections.

In other words, there is no “it depends” clause in U.S. election law. “An in-kind contribution is ‘anything of value’ accepted by a campaign, and a foreign contribution is prohibited, period,” said former Federal Election Commission chairman Trevor Potter, who was campaign counsel to John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. “So soliciting a foreign source for help or accepting help or assistance knowing it is from a foreign source is illegal.” 

For some reason, Barr openly struggles with the concept of foreign subterfuge in U.S. campaigns. In a Senate hearing more than a year ago, the attorney general was asked similar questions, and gave even more evasive and disturbing answers. Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware posed a ridiculously easy question: If North Korean intelligence officers were to offer a U.S. campaign dirt on an opponent, should the campaign contact the Federal Bureau of Investigation?

Astonishingly, Barr did not answer. He paused, seemingly weighing his response. Then he offered a hedged reply: “A foreign intelligence service, yes.”

Later, Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska asked Barr whether a foreign enemy of the U.S. could hire campaign operatives on retainer and install them in a U.S. campaign. (Sasse seemed to have in mind Paul Manafort, Trump’s 2016 campaign chairman, who before being convicted of multiple counts of tax fraud in 2018, made his living serving Russian interests in Ukraine.)

“It depends on the specific circumstances,” Barr said. “It’s a slippery area.”

The area is not nearly as slippery as Barr. The only question is whether he has greased his responses to try to excuse Trump’s extended 2016 dalliance with Russia, or as a kind of prebuttal to foreign interference in the 2020 election. In either case, Barr has positioned himself as Trump’s apologist rather than as an agent of law enforcement.

As Potter said, via email, any credible lawyer would advise a political candidate not to collude with foreigners. “But if a client did it first and told the lawyer later, they would start thinking of arguments that there was at least no criminal violation — as Trump’s did.”

That’s apparently how Barr perceives his role as Attorney General: Trump’s lawyer. Indeed, Barr seems eager to erase whole classes of criminality where it would benefit his boss. During the course of his testimony this week, Barr recast the perjury charge to which former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn pleaded guilty as an “esoteric made-up crime.”

Barr is likewise recasting foreign sabotage to help Trump in 2020. Illegal? Corrupt? It depends.

Meanwhile, Axios reported Wednesday that Trump has had at least eight conversations with Russian President since intelligence was included in Trump’s daily brief about Russian bounties on the heads of American soldiers in Afghanistan. Trump admitted he has never once raised the issue with Putin.

Barr wants us to think all of this is a nuanced matter of great legal complexity. But some things are painfully obvious.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.

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