It is not a new tactic for the Trump Administration. But the fact that this device was deployed by Attorney General William Barr—the chief law enforcement officer in the country—raises the bar to a wholly new level, and should deepen the concern among all Americans that standards for responsibility in the face of awkward or embarrassing actions has plummeted to new lows.
Mr. Barr understands both the power of words and the influence of his office. An individual with a long history in Washington, he knows how a single phrase can create a climate of distrust and disillusionment. So, as if to combat the firestorm caused by release of his four-page “summary/not a summary” memo on the report of Special Council Robert Mueller without releasing the report itself, Mr. Barr leveled a rehashed and unsubstantiated claim about the “US Government” spying on the Trump campaign.
It is a Keystone-Cops-Cartoon moment. The response to Barr’s remark was quick and pointed. According to CNN, “Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who had a long career serving Republican and Democratic presidents, [said that] Barr’s use of the word ‘spying’ was ‘both stunning and scary.’” And former deputy assistant attorney Harry Litman said, “When I heard ‘spying,’ my heart skipped a beat. That is a loaded term—Bill Barr knows it’s a loaded term and was likely to play into a triumphant talking point from President Trump.”
I have written previously of distraction as being a favored tactic of this White House. But, the current example—with all the power the term “spying” implies in a world of international tension and breaches in cybersecurity—is a proactive ploy. It seeks to draw attention away from…from what? Revelations from the Mueller report that don’t fit the President’s sunny version of exoneration he’s been plying since Barr’s initial comments? Possible examples of shady behavior should his tax returns be released? The administration’s callous inhumanity at our southern border? Recent disclosures about hush money payments right before the 2016 election? There are so many current scandals emanating from the White House it is hard to keep score. That said, it is clear that the objective in Barr’s charge, “I think spying did occur,” was to distract.
The second part of this equation is a bit more subtle, but no less dangerous. The accused in Barr’s remarks is the US Government—specifically, the FBI and counterintelligence agencies. His clear attempt is to discredit these agencies before the Mueller report is released. In this way, it will be easier for Americans to discount whatever is revealed in the report as the product of a corrupt, politically motivated enterprise. Never mind that these agencies are part of the Attorney General’s own department and cornerstones to upholding national security and the rule of law in this country. With the public inclined against the integrity of these institutions, Mueller’s report—whatever it shows—is more easily dismissed as hopelessly biased and irrelevant. How sad, and how dangerous, for our democracy.