Barr's summary gambit could backfire, al la Nunes's memo

Sometimes, a culprit plotting mass destruction ends up, thankfully, destroying only himself. When that occurs, you get a silent satisfaction that everyone else is safe, and that karma got it right. In the annals of American political history, we need go back only to last July for the most recent backfire: The Nunes memo. We might be headed for a second, actually a third: The Barr summary.

To sum up, Devin NunesDevin Gerald NunesTech privacy practices under scrutiny after DOJ subpoenas GOP's Stefanik defends Trump DOJ secret subpoenas CNN reporter's phone and email records secretly obtained by Trump administration: report MORE, the freelancing then-chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, compiled a memo purporting to show that a bunch of biased FBI agents abused the FISA warrant process against a member of the Trump presidential campaign, Carter Page, to help undermine Trump’s 2016 election. 

The Nunes Memo was issued on Feb. 2 last year, after the president blessed its release, despite objections by the FBI and intelligence community because of inaccuracies and omissions (can you say, “cherry-picked facts?”). House Democrats issued their own rebuttal of the memo later that month.


Then, in July, the Justice Department reluctantly released heavily redacted FISA records, at the request of the Republican rabble rousers, pertaining to several warrant applications on Page signed by four different judges beginning in October 2016. Those documents reflected the inaccuracies in the Nunes memo, and by inference supported the Democrats’ rebuttal. Kaboom! Karma struck.

I remember writing the day the memo was first released about how incredulous I was that Nunes would actually go through with such an obvious political stunt at great risk to his credibility and that of his cohorts. I likened the stunt to a cartoon scene, and explained how and why House Republicans could and would resort to such folly, because of my history with them. 

And I predicted: “If history is a judge, I’ll bet that memo is so full of cherry-picked ‘dots’ that it looks like one of their gerrymandered districts.” Six months later, that prediction proved out.

Then came Nunes redux.

Last April, fired FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyMystery surrounds Justice's pledge on journalist records NYT publisher: DOJ phone records seizure a 'dangerous incursion' on press freedom Trump DOJ seized phone records of New York Times reporters MORE was on his book tour when karma struck again. Comey was struggling during interviews on networks and cable. They had beaten him down to the point where his spirit seemed eroded and interviewers were fixated on Comey’s passage about Trump’s hand-size, skin and hair. Comey even lamented, on ABC’s “The View,” that he wished he hadn’t included that passage in his book. 

Suddenly, House Republicans unwittingly rescued Comey, having just acquired from DOJ the so-called “Comey memos,” his contemporaneous notes of Trump’s alleged obstruction endeavors. They leaked the memos to the press thinking they would sink Comey on his book tour. Instead, kaboom!  Karma struck again.


Comey suddenly found his stride. He went from an awkward, weak performance on CNN’s “The Lead” with Jake Tapper to a robust rebound on “The Rachel Maddow Show.” That’s because, during the show, Maddow’s producers were getting copies of the leaked documents real time, and she zeroed in on the contents. The discussion quickly shifted from Trump’s skin-hair-hands to the factual underpinnings of the memos and the consistency of Comey’s testimony over the many months. That focus spread to other interviews, and soon Comey went from teetering to resolute for the rest of his tour.

The defense of the president needed help.

Enter William BarrBill BarrEnergized Trump probes pose problems for Biden Pavlich: Biden can't ignore defund the police contributions to violent crime spike Progressives slam Garland for DOJ stances on Trump-era cases MORE, a shrewd establishment veteran with some experience and lawyerly tricks up his sleeve.

Barr’s four-page summary of the Mueler report created a window for Trump and his surrogates to pronounce vindication, and command the public narrative of Trump’s innocence. Trump’s opponents had no means to fight back.

But that ploy, a classic bureaucratic trick, could backfire — it could become Nunes III.

They tried something similar on me back in the day.  It didn’t work.

In the 1990s, I was investigating Louie Freeh’s FBI for the Senate Judiciary Committee for one scandal after another — Waco, Ruby Ridge, Richard Jewell, you name it. Then came the infamous FBI crime lab scandal, which I was investigating. 

The DOJ inspector general had just compiled a 500-page report showing widespread misconduct in the lab in which FBI agents were bullying lab scientists to alter their findings so the bureau could get unwarranted convictions in court. If the scientists stood up to the bullies, the agents would go around them and alter their scientific reports anyway. 

The scientists were revolting. Obviously, the FBI didn’t want this information in the open until they could cover it up, pronounce there was never a problem, and thereby control the narrative. They negotiated with the IG to withhold release of the report for two months so the bureau could “address the issues raised.” Those two months were the equivalent of today’s Barr window. It would allow them to inoculate the public before the report’s release, just like Trump is doing now.

Here’s how I defeated that strategy. While I didn’t have access to the report, I did have access to much of the documentation through an on-going court case and through some FOIA requests. These documents confirmed the most important of the original allegations of wrong-doing in the lab.

I wrote a series of floor statements for my boss to deliver on the Senate floor, and inserted the documents into the Congressional Record. I did that once or twice a week during that two-month window. The press got the message out. By the time the report was released, the inoculation had failed. It was another FBI scandal in full public view.

Today, the House Judiciary Committee is in a similar circumstance. Barr has put them on hold not just for Trump’s inoculation, but so DOJ can get their cover story together. The committee needs information to shatter that window.

The best way is to subpoena Bob Mueller. The objective would be to create cracks between the Barr summary and what Mueller says under oath. The focus would be on obstruction. After Mueller, other witnesses could follow, creating as many cracks as possible before the window closes in mid-April.

Should the committee find and exploit such cracks, it would create the rain needed to end the president’s asinine victory parade. It would also shine a big spotlight on Barr, the drum major behind the scenes. That’s when we’d have Nunes III.

Kris Kolesnik is a 34-year veteran of federal government oversight. He spent 19 years as senior counselor and director of investigations for Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa). Kolesnik then became executive director of the National Whistleblower Center. Finally, he spent 10 years working with the Department of the Interior’s Office of Inspector General as the associate inspector general for external affairs.