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Trump's 'Obamagate' comments and Barr's Flynn meddling suggest troubling new pivot

Trump can't pull off this ruse by himself, of course, but he has a partner. Barr is riding shotgun during this scorched-earth joyride against justice.
Image: President Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr arrive at a ceremony in the East Room of the White House on Sept. 9, 2019.
President Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr arrive at a ceremony in the East Room of the White House on Sept. 9, 2019.Andrew Harnik / AP file

In my 25 years as an FBI special agent and (now retired) head of the bureau's counterintelligence, I learned the value of predictive analysis. Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the FBI transitioned from an investigative agency adept at investigating what happened after the fact to an intelligence agency capable of forecasting and preventing harm from happening in the future.

Forecasting is a lot easier when there are clear clues. And when it comes to assessing the trap Attorney General William Barr and President Donald Trump appear to be setting for us, the warning signs are plentiful. We don't need to read tea leaves for this. We only need to review tweets.

The warning signs are plentiful. We don’t need to read tea leaves for this. We only need to review tweets.

On Saturday, Trump retweeted a fantastical fiction of a theory from The Federalist asserting that former President Barack Obama's White House intelligence discussions about, in part, the trustworthiness of incoming national security adviser Michael Flynn and members of the Trump transition team were proof that Obama and former Vice President Joe Biden were malevolently conspiring against the Trump administration.

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Trump later retweeted a Fox News legal analyst's opinion that without Flynn, the entire Russia investigation is meaningless and perhaps should be thrown out, as well. Those cues are only the latest of a multitude of similar warnings that point to where the president and the attorney general may be venturing next.

Trump is clearly still sensitive about the 2016 election, and especially about concerns that he may not have beaten former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton fairly. He therefore has a special interest in undermining accusations of Russian meddling, something he has done since entering the Oval Office. What better way to do this than to flip the script? He didn't have an advantage; in fact, he was the victim.

As other commentators have pointed out, attempting this bait and switch would likely involve efforts to censure, discipline or even criminally charge current and former government officials, such as former CIA Director John Brennan, fired FBI Director James Comey, former national security adviser Susan Rice, former National Intelligence Director James Clapper and perhaps even Obama and Biden. During his Monday news conference in the Rose Garden, a reporter asked Trump what crime he might accuse Obama of committing. Trump responded: "Obamagate, it's been going on for a long time. It's been going on from before I got elected, and it's a disgrace that it happened. You look at, now, all of this information that's being released, and from what I understand, that's only the beginning."

The kind of truth-twisting required to launch such false allegations is alluring to Trump-supporting conspiracists who are already throw around groundless terms like "Deep State." But for these theories to transition from mere social media innuendo to formal accusations would be a chaotic and divisive development. Moreover, any criminal investigations would require cooperation from Barr.

And the president's strategy might not end with useless, polarizing investigations into members of the previous administration. What if he tried to convince Americans that the indictments of 26 Russian nationals for their efforts meddling in our country's election should never have been brought? This approach could then be used to justify overturning U.S. sanctions against Russia. Such a reversal would certainly appease President Vladimir Putin, which brings us to another breadcrumb.

On May 7, the same day that Barr moved to dismiss proven charges against Flynn, Trump had a call with Putin. Although the official White House summary of the call didn't include a discussion of what Trump has called the "Russia hoax," Trump disclosed to reporters that he and Putin talked about the repercussions of the special counsel's investigation. Trump explained that the "Russia hoax" was "very hard" on the U.S. and Russia's foreign relations, "and we discussed that."

Predictive analysis doesn't put much credence in coincidences. Barr's attempt to make the special counsel's Russia-related Flynn case disappear, and Trump's chat with Putin about the special counsel inquiry the same day, should be treated as indications of a potential shift in strategy ahead.

We already know that the president has been hellbent on invalidating the work of the special counsel's office. That investigation resulted in 34 total indictments, including those of the 26 Russians and three Russian organizations. Other individuals were convicted when their cases were spun off to other prosecutors.

The convictions of loyal associates like Flynn and Roger Stone clearly needle Trump. But the special counsel found no chargeable criminal conspiracy between them and Russia. The elements of Mueller's investigation that seem to really cut the deepest are the findings about election interference. And it's those findings that Trump may now be seeking to nullify.

In Trump's mind, the evidence of Russian meddling, confirmed by the GOP-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee, tarnishes his victory. And that bruises his ego.

Trump can't pull off this ruse by himself, of course, but he has a partner. Barr is riding shotgun on Trump's scorched-earth joyride against justice. Barr already said he believes the Russia inquiry was designed to "sabotage" Trump's campaign. He's ignored the findings of his own inspector general and appointed a hand-picked U.S. attorney to try to put flesh on the bones of a convoluted conspiracy theory.

As this staged farce unfolds, the truth will be trampled, reputations ruined and a foreign adversary empowered. We don't need a crystal ball to see the harmful trap ahead. Don't fall for it.