Sitting in the hot seat of a high-profile congressional hearing has a way of unmasking the mettle of any witness.
Attorney General William BarrBill BarrThe enemy within: Now every day is Jan. 6 Dems worry they'll be boxed out without changes to filibuster, voting rules This week: Democrats face crunch time on voting rights MORE showed us Tuesday, in his first testimony since the end of the Russia probe, that he’s not big on emotion, animation or flashy presentations. Calm, scholarly and precise was his modus operandi, even as Democrats tried to lob a bomb or two his way.
But the even-keeled nature of his two-hour-plus performance shouldn’t blind us to one momentous declaration he made to lawmakers.
Though it didn’t happen on his watch, Barr told Congress he will investigate how the FBI came to conduct a counterintelligence investigation against Donald TrumpDonald TrumpSanders calls out Manchin, Sinema ahead of filibuster showdown Laura Ingraham 'not saying' if she'd support Trump in 2024 The Hill's 12:30 Report: Djokovic may not compete in French Open over vaccine requirement MORE, then the Republican nominee for president, starting in the summer of 2016.
We have known for more than a year now that Department of Justice (DOJ) Inspector General Michael Horowitz has been investigating whether the FBI or DOJ abused the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to secure a warrant to spy on Trump campaign adviser Carter Page less than three weeks from Election Day 2016.
But Barr made clear Tuesday that his review is distinct and more far-ranging than IG Horowitz’s investigation. It goes back to the moment when a probe code-named Crossfire Hurricane was opened on July 31, 2016, by Trump-hating FBI counterintelligence agent Peter Strzok.
That probe’s goal was to determine whether Trump was colluding with Russia to hijack the election. And very quickly, the FBI chose to use an opposition research project, funded by Trump rival Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party and written by British intelligence operative Christopher Steele, as key evidence — even though it was unverified at the time.
Special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerAn unquestioning press promotes Rep. Adam Schiff's book based on Russia fiction Senate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG MORE has settled the collusion issue, concluding (like House and Senate Intelligence committee Republicans before him) that there was no Trump-Russia conspiracy.
But Barr used a question from Rep. Robert AderholtRobert Brown AderholtGroup launches first national ad campaign to celebrate America's 250th anniversary House Democrats call for paid legal representation in immigration court Mo Brooks expresses interest in running for Shelby's Senate seat MORE (R-Ala.) to signal that he wants to go further than Mueller or the IG to determine whether the counterintelligence probe was legit from the start.
“The Office of the Inspector General has a pending investigation of the FISA process in the Russia investigation. I expect that will be complete in probably May or June, I am told,” Barr explained, giving the first concrete timetable for the IG probe to wrap up. “So hopefully we'll have some answers from Inspector General Horowitz on the issue of the FISA warrants.”
Then Barr volunteered his bigger news: “More generally, I am reviewing the conduct of the investigation and trying to get my arms around all the aspects of the counterintelligence investigation that was conducted during the summer of 2016.”
He didn’t offer much more, although he told Rep. Aderholt that if there are additional issues to investigate when former House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin NunesDevin Gerald NunesGOP lawmaker adheres to term limit pledge, won't run for reelection The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Altria - Winter is here for Democrats Hillicon Valley — GOP leader criticizes Twitter over Greene ban MORE sends the department a criminal referral, he will expand his probe.
Within a few hours of Barr wrapping up, official Washington was just starting to grasp the magnitude of his matter-of-fact declaration.
Trump’s defenders rejoiced that they finally were getting what they have wanted: a wide-ranging review of whether the counterintelligence probe that tarred Trump for two years was warranted, conducted properly or tainted by political bias.
“I think this is huge,” Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanRand Paul cancels DirecTV subscription after it drops OAN Sunday shows preview: Democrats' struggle for voting rights bill comes to a head GOP's McCarthy has little incentive to work with Jan. 6 panel MORE (R-Ohio) told me. “We’ve always wanted someone with authority to go back and see how this started and whether it was done by the rules. And now we have that chance.”
Jordan said Barr’s review, coupled with planned hearings by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamKyrsten Sinema's courage, Washington hypocrisy and the politics of rage Hillicon Valley: Amazon's Alabama union fight — take two McConnell will run for another term as leader despite Trump's attacks MORE (R-S.C.) should finally give Americans some complete answers about whether figures such as Strzok, FBI lawyer Lisa Page, fired Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabeAndrew George McCabeAndrew McCabe's settlement with the Department of Justice is a signal to John Durham Trump criticizes Justice for restoring McCabe's benefits The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Altria - Jan. 6 panel flexes its muscle MORE, fired FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyHillary 2024? Given the competition, she may be the Dems' best hope Trump draws attention with admission he 'fired Comey' Countering the ongoing Republican delusion MORE and departing Deputy Attorney General Rod RosensteinRod RosensteinWashington still needs more transparency House Judiciary to probe DOJ's seizure of data from lawmakers, journalists The Hill's Morning Report - Biden-Putin meeting to dominate the week MORE acted appropriately.
But Mueller’s no-collusion conclusion was the first pinprick in their narrative of there being good reason to believe Trump colluded with Russia. And Barr’s and Graham’s deeper investigations could find answers to many troubling questions, such as:
- Were the FBI and the intelligence community essentially used to carry out a political dirty trick to try to stop Trump from winning and then to delegitimize his election victory afterward?
- Did the FBI mislead the FISA court by withholding evidence of innocence and failing to tell the judges that their main evidence was bought and paid for by Trump’s Democratic rival and written by a Trump-hating British operative?
- Did Strzok, Page and Steele’s overt anti-Trump bias impact the investigation?
- Did the FBI use strategic leaks to the news media to create evidence or a narrative to sustain a probe with weak underpinnings?
- Did the FBI abuse intelligence tools or unnecessarily use invasive tactics that targeted just one candidate and impinged on a fair and free election?
Getting answers to these questions is essential to restore Americans’ trust in the FBI and the justice system. It also is essential to ensuring accountability is meted out to anyone who failed to follow the law.
Most importantly, it is the key to ensuring that the checkered history of the Russia collusion case is never repeated.
John Solomon is an award-winning investigative journalist whose work over the years has exposed U.S. and FBI intelligence failures before the Sept. 11 attacks, federal scientists’ misuse of foster children and veterans in drug experiments, and numerous cases of political corruption. He serves as an investigative columnist and executive vice president for video at The Hill.