During her hour-long interview last week of Attorney General William Barr, “CBS This Morning” journalist Jan Crawford focused mainly on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of President Trump. She also, however, questioned Barr on the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) efforts to ensure that Russian attempts to interfere in our elections are not repeated in 2020.
This revealed the attorney general is probing a second scandal of the Obama administration related to the 2016 presidential election. Or it would be regarded as a second scandal if it garnered more attention: Why the Obama administration failed to forcefully respond to intelligence of Russian interference in our elections.
The DOJ has “an increasingly robust program that is focusing on foreign influence in our election process, with the FBI obviously taking the lead,” Barr told Crawford. But not enough was done in 2016, Barr acknowledged.
“Bob Mueller did some impressive work in his investigation, you know, identifying some of the Russian hackers and their influence campaign and you sort of wonder if that kind of work had been done starting in 2016, things could have been a lot different,” he said. Crawford replied, “It’s just hard to understand why it wasn’t taken more seriously.” Barr agreed, saying he had no idea why it wasn’t. “That’s one of the things I’m interested in looking at as part of my review of the Russia collusion investigation,” Barr stressed.
With people warned as early as April 2016, “I’m wondering what, exactly, was the response to it if they were alarmed. Surely the response should have been more than just, you know, dangling a confidential informant in front of a peripheral player in the Trump campaign,” the attorney general told Crawford before she moved to another topic.
On further analysis, it becomes clear that Barr’s remarks hold more significance than the brief mention Crawford’s interview. First, Friday’s interview is not the only time the attorney general raised the issue of the Obama administration’s failure to launch a robust response to Russian attempts to interfere in our election. Barr also raised the issue last month when testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
During those hearings, Sen. John Cornyn (D–Texas) noted that Mueller’s report “accumulated evidence indicating that the Russian government—through intelligence agencies and internet research organizations, such as the IRA—began as early as 2014 to undermine and sew dissension in the 2016 presidential elections.”
In response to questions concerning his efforts to protect the country from a repeat in 2020, Barr commended Mueller’s efforts—“impressive work,” he called it—”in moving quickly to identify and address the Russian elements involved in the election interference.” The attorney general then added: “I was thinking to myself if that had been done in the beginning of 2016, we would have been a lot further along.”
Barr’s comments also should not be considered in isolation. When considered in tandem with several aspects of the Spygate investigation, it suggests the Obama administration habitually ignored Russia’s efforts to affect the election, opting instead to target Trump and the Trump campaign, transition team, and administration.
Barr’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee highlights one such example: The attorney general confirmed his understanding that the Obama administration had failed to provide Trump a defensive briefing before January 2017, to inform him of “what the Russians were trying to do and [to] advise him to tell people affiliated with his campaign to be on their guard and vigilant about Russians efforts to undermine public confidence in the election.”
“I can’t fathom why it did not happen, if you’re concerned about interference in the election,” Barr told the senators. With three former U.S. attorneys involved in the campaign, “I don’t understand why the bureau would not have given a defensive briefing,” the attorney general testified.
Last week, Rep. John Ratcliffe (R–Texas), a member of the House Judiciary Committee, added more texture to the attorney general’s testimony, telling Fox News that during an August 17, 2016 defensive briefing of candidate Trump, “He wasn’t warned about a Russia investigation that Peter Strzok had opened 18 days earlier.”
In a follow-up report, Catherine Herridge revealed the campaign was not specifically warned about Russian outreach to the Trump team during the August 2016 briefing, “nor did the FBI warn him that two campaign aides, Mike Flynn and George Papadopoulos, were already under FBI investigation.” The since-fired Strzok also served in dual roles at this time, Herridge reported—both as “a central coordinator for the FBI on the defensive briefing” about Russian activities and as the lead investigator of “Russian outreach to Trump campaign aides.”
The Obama administration’s failure to brief Trump on the investigation into individuals connected to his campaign for suspected collusion with Russia is but a part of the problem. The FBI also failed to promptly interview George Papadopoulos and Papadopoulos’ supposed Russian connection, Joseph Mifsud, even though the FBI claims it launched the investigation into the Trump campaign in late July based on Papadopoulos’s purported foreknowledge of the WikiLeaks hack of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) server.
Specifically, the FBI first interviewed Papadopoulos in January 2017, and Mifsud the following month—sixth months after the start of Crossfire Hurricane. To paraphrase Barr: I don’t understand why the bureau would not have expeditiously questioned, at a minimum, Papadopoulos if they were so alarmed by his contact with a supposed Russian agent.
Testimony by former National Security Council Cybersecurity Coordinator Michael Daniel provides further evidence of the Obama administration’s lax response to Russian interference. During questioning by the Senate Intelligence Committee, Daniel admitted to telling his team during a morning staff meeting that they had been told “to stand down,” from their planned response to the Russian hacking and that his directive drew a terse response: “Why the h-ll are we standing down?”
While Daniel admitted he received a stand-down order, he told the committee that there was a “larger context” that could be discussed in the classified session. He added that not all activities concerning Russian interference ceased at that point. Instead, the cybersecurity unit shifted in the September and October timeframe to assist states in protecting the electoral infrastructure. But the cyber response was “put on the backburner.”
The release of notes a State Department official took during her October 2016 meeting with dossier-author Christopher Steele also shows the Obama administration’s flatfooted response to Russian interference. “The Russians have succeeded in placing an agent inside the DNC,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Kathleen Kavalec wrote based on Steele’s supposed intel.
In his dossier, Steele also highlighted concerns that the Russians had “a dossier of compromising material on Hillary Clinton,” including “bugged conversations” and “intercepted phone calls.” Yet, to date, there has been no mention of the Obama administration investigating either claim—something one would expect in a robust investigation of Russian interference.
While most of these examples connect to Spygate and suggest the Obama administration and career DOJ and FBI employees inappropriately targeted the Trump campaign, that is but half the scandal. The corollary consists of the Obama administration’s reckless handling of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and its decision to prioritize a sting of the Trump campaign over fighting foreign influence on the electorate. Even those who reject Spygate as a conspiracy theory should see the Obama administration’s ineffective response to Russia’s meddling in our elections as a scandal.
Margot Cleveland is a senior contributor to The Federalist. Cleveland served nearly 25 years as a permanent law clerk to a federal appellate judge and is a former full-time faculty member and current adjunct instructor at the college of business at the University of Notre Dame. The views expressed here are those of Cleveland in her private capacity.