An effort in recent months by Donald Trump to rewrite the history of the 2016 US presidential election and set up a 2020 re-election victory was both more geographically sprawling and reliant on the day-to-day participation of top cabinet members than previously reported, it emerged on Monday.
Both William Barr, the attorney general, and Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, collectively participated in contacts between Trump and leaders of at least four foreign countries, according to multiple reports.
Those contacts were variously aimed at producing stories that could damage Joe Biden, Trump’s potential 2020 opponent, or at producing stories that could undermine the US intelligence community assessment from 2017 of Russian election tampering in the last election, the reports said.
An impeachment inquiry launched last week in the House of Representatives was sparked by known Trump administration contacts with one country, Ukraine. But the picture of Trump’s outreach to additional potential foreign partners, and the scope of involvement of top government officials in the effort, was quickly changing.
Barr and Pompeo – whose vast portfolios nominally run from administering criminal justice in the United States to securing international alliances and combating threats abroad – have separately tried to distance themselves from the avalanching revelation that Trump’s conduct of the matters of state has apparently, in significant proportion, been devoted to the pursuit of the president’s personal bugbears and ambitions.
Barr was previously reported to be “surprised and angry” to find his name mentioned in a summary of a call between Trump and the Ukrainian president, while Pompeo, when asked what he knew about that phone call, replied that he had not seen a copy of the whistleblower document that flagged it: “I haven’t seen the complaint,” he told ABC News.
In fact, Pompeo reportedly took part in the call, according to the Wall Street Journal, citing a senior state department official. For his part, Barr flew to Italy and to London to ask for help in “investigating” the roots of the Russia investigation, the Washington Post reported. Trump also asked the Australian prime Scott Morrison for help, and Morrison agreed to assist, something first reported by the New York Times, and confirmed by the Australian government.
“It should trouble all of us that the attorney general is flying overseas and spending his time focused on discrediting the origins of the Mueller probe instead of combating crime here in the US,” tweeted the former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti. “His personal involvement reinforces the view that he does Trump’s bidding.”
“Pretty clear that Barr is working feverishly [with] Trump to produce some kind of anti-Mueller report,” tweeted the MSNBC host Chris Hayes.
The justice department defied that characterization, issuing a statement Monday describing Barr’s work as business-as-usual to support the US attorney John Durham’s ongoing investigation of the FBI’s former investigation of Russian election tampering. The justice department opened the counter-investigation following Trump’s repeated claims that his campaign, which had serial secret contacts with Russian operatives, had been unfairly targeted for scrutiny.
“At attorney general Barr’s request, the president has contacted other countries to ask them to introduce the attorney general and Mr Durham to appropriate officials,” the spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said.
Foreign officials could have information useful to Durham because the investigation of Trump’s campaign began with a tip to the FBI from an Australian diplomat that a Trump aide had drunkenly told him about a Russian offer of “dirt” on Hillary Clinton.
But it was very unusual for the attorney general, much less the president, to be personally involved at such lengths in an internal investigation, even where foreign contacts are required, former federal prosecutors said.
“In a real investigation, all that is needed is a request from a line prosecutor to the foreign country, made through the [justice department] Office of International Affairs, and pursuant to the terms of a mutual legal assistance treaty,” tweeted Harry Sandick, a former prosecutor in the southern district of New York. “No calls from the president are involved.”
Trump’s exertions to rewrite the history of the 2016 election and win re-election next year are the focus on an impeachment inquiry, which he appears to want to beat by exploiting the powers of his office to tar his political opponents as corrupt.
After the impeachment inquiry was announced last week, the Trump administration intensified an investigation of communications between career public servants and Clinton, who found scandal by setting up a private server to host her correspondence as secretary of state.
Pompeo oversees the internal state department investigation – but has refused questions about it.
“I tried to ask [Pompeo] today why he is targeting veteran diplomats for routine emails when they had nothing to do with that private server,” the NBC News anchor Andrea Mitchell tweeted Monday. “He turned his back and walked away.”
When a summary appeared last week of the July phone call between Trump and the Ukrainian president, the scope of involvement by the Trump administration seemed at first to be limited. Trump had mostly used his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to pursue his project, it seemed.
But that picture has quickly changed. The release of a whistleblower report Thursday suggested an active role by Barr, and said that a dozen US officials had listened to the Trump-Ukraine phone call, and that summaries of the call had been distributed more widely – raising the question of what proportion of Trump administration energies in recent months have been devoted to Trump’s pet projects.
“The America First crowd is jeopardizing our national security,” tweeted Barack Obama’s former speechwriter Jon Favreau, “by pressuring foreign governments to help them discredit our intelligence officials and rig our elections.”