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William Barr disdains election deadline with plan to report on FBI probe

Attorney General William Barr attends an event in July at the White House.

JABIN BOTSFORD/THE WASHINGTON POST

By CHRIS STROHM | Bloomberg | Published: August 18, 2020

Attorney General William Barr is promising more revelations from a probe of the government’s investigation into Russian meddling in 2016, but he might be running out of time.

Barr said last week’s formal charge against a former FBI lawyer is just the first of several “significant” developments he expects to come out before the Nov. 3 presidential election.

But Barr’s critics say Justice Department policy states that he has until about Sept. 4 to make any information public. The attorney general disagrees, and President Donald Trump — lagging in the polls — has made clear he expects his top law enforcement officer to press on.

Longstanding Justice Department guidelines say prosecutors must not take investigative steps nor issue criminal charges for the purpose of influencing an election or helping a particular candidate or party when the vote is less than two months away. Then-FBI Director James Comey’s decision to reveal his reopening of a probe into Hillary Clinton days before the 2016 election — a move seen as aiding Trump — violated that principle and was criticized widely.

“Law enforcement should do its job but not be determining election results,” said Joshua Geltzer, who served in the Justice Department and on the National Security Council during the Obama administration. “All of us are clear on what the spirit and actual intent is of the 60-day rule.”

Barr contends that the probe led by U.S. Attorney John Durham isn’t focused on either candidate, former vice president Joe Biden or Trump, so the Justice Department deadline isn’t relevant. And he has rejected accusations that he’s trying to influence voting.

“I have said there are going to be developments, significant developments, before the election,” Barr said in an interview last week with Fox News host Sean Hannity. “But we’re not doing this on the election schedule. We’re aware of the election. We’re not going to do anything inappropriate before the election.”

The president publicly has pressed Barr to divulge as much as he can, contending that evidence will back his unsupported claims that former President Barack Obama and Biden led a criminal plot to spy on his campaign and his early presidency.

“Bill Barr has a chance to be the greatest of all time, but if he wants to be politically correct, he’ll be just another guy because he knows all the answers,” Trump said when asked about the Durham probe on Aug. 13 during an interview with Fox Business Network’s Maria Bartiromo. “He knows what they have, and it goes right to Obama and it goes right to Biden.”

Those remarks suggest Trump sees the Durham probe — meant to determine whether FBI or intelligence officials committed crimes when they pursued the Russia probe, as the president alleges — in purely political terms.

“Trump’s words connect the work that Barr’s overseeing and that Durham is doing to Joe Biden,” Geltzer said. “Whether or not that has a basis, it’s nonetheless how Donald Trump is trying to frame Durham’s work to smear his opposing candidate.”

Less than three months from election day, Democrats are watching for any sign that the administration will take steps to sway the vote or to undermine suffrage. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is calling members of the House back to Washington this week to work out legislation aimed at shoring up the U.S. Postal Service amid concern that the agency is scaling back capacity to prevent mail-in ballots from being delivered on time.

The Justice Department and Durham’s office declined to comment.

Although Barr, a longtime proponent of a strong presidency, frequently has pushed back on accusations he can be pressured politically, he’s made a number of unusual moves benefiting or of interest to Trump. Those include ordering prosecutors to reduce their sentencing recommendation for longtime Trump associate Roger Stone, his abrupt decision to fire the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, and his outspoken criticism of the original FBI Russia probe.

Last year, Barr was criticized for misrepresenting the findings of Special Counsel Robert Mueller before releasing his full report on Russian election interference.

To be sure, Barr confronts other limitations in what he can release and say about Durham’s probe, according to two U.S. officials who asked to remain anonymous to speak about sensitive matters.

He’s restricted by rules to protect classified information and grand jury secrecy, and is limited by the type and timing of cases that have to ripen to the point that they can be brought before a court or discussed publicly, the officials said.

For example, after more than a year of work on the criminal investigation, the first case announced in the Durham probe last week consisted of one charge against the low-level former FBI lawyer who admitted to altering one email in June 2017, eight months after Trump was elected president.

The former lawyer’s counsel has indicated he plans to plead guilty to altering a CIA email that was cited in asking a judge to extend a secret wiretap of a former Trump campaign adviser in 2017.

There’s also no indication that Durham will be finished with his investigation before the election, as several witnesses still haven’t been interviewed, including former CIA Director John Brennan, according to one official.

With those limitations in mind, Barr has indicated that information he provides in the coming days might be verbal descriptions of what Durham has found, rather than hard evidence.

“We need to get the story of what happened in 2016 and ’17 now out,” he said in the Fox interview. “That will be done.”