Endorsing Trump’s Firing of Inspector General, Barr Paints Distorted Picture

WASHINGTON — Attorney General William P. Barr endorsed and defended President Trump’s firing of Michael K. Atkinson, the intelligence community inspector general, in an interview with Fox News. But in making the case that Mr. Atkinson committed a firing offense in his handling of a whistle-blower complaint last year that led to the impeachment battle, Mr. Barr made several claims that are subject to scrutiny.

Mr. Atkinson pushed the Trump administration in September to tell Congress about the whistle-blower complaint accusing Mr. Trump of abusing his power to try to coerce Ukraine into announcing investigations that could deliver him personal political benefits. The complaint touched off Mr. Trump’s impeachment by the Democratic-controlled House.

Since the Republican-controlled Senate acquitted the president, he has been purging officials who cooperated with the House inquiry. On April 3, Mr. Trump fired Mr. Atkinson. The next day, the president made clear at a news briefing that he did so because he remained angry that the inspector general wanted to disclose the complaint to Congress.

“He did a terrible job, absolutely terrible,” Mr. Trump said, adding: “He took a fake report and he brought it to Congress with an emergency, OK? Not a big Trump fan, that I can tell you.”

He endorsed Mr. Trump’s move while putting forth a dubious account of what happened. This is Mr. Barr’s statement:

“The president did the right thing in removing Atkinson. From the vantage point of the Department of Justice, he had interpreted his statute — which is a fairly narrow statute, gave him jurisdiction over wrongdoing by intelligence people — and tried to turn it in to a commission to explore anything in the government and immediately report it to Congress without letting the executive branch look at it and determine whether there was any problem. He was told this in a letter from the Department of Justice, and he is obliged to follow the interpretation of the Department of Justice and he ignored it, so I think the president was correct in firing him.”

No, not when it came to an executive branch review. Mr. Atkinson tried to follow the procedures laid out in the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act, which requires that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence review the complaint, then report it to Congress.

After determining that the complaint was “credible” and raised an “urgent concern,” Mr. Atkinson provided it on Aug. 26 to the acting director of national intelligence at the time, Joseph Maguire. Mr. Atkinson believed that under the whistle-blower protection law, Mr. Maguire would have seven days to review the materials and append any comments before passing on the complaint to Congress.

A senior Justice Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, defended Mr. Barr’s claim that Mr. Atkinson instead thought he could “immediately report it to Congress without letting the executive branch look at it,” arguing that a week was insufficient for the department to conduct its own review of the complaint.

But it was Congress, not Mr. Atkinson, that set the review period at one week for complaints covered by the whistle-blower law. In addition, officials at the White House and the Justice Department already knew that an intelligence official had raised concerns about Mr. Trump’s Ukraine dealings even before he filed the complaint on Aug. 12. The department ultimately decided not to open any criminal investigation.

No. While Mr. Atkinson disagreed with it, he considered himself bound by it.

After Mr. Atkinson gave the complaint to Mr. Maguire, Steven E. Engel, the head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, opined that the whistle-blower law did not apply because the complaint was not about an intelligence activity, so the administration could lawfully withhold it from Congress.

On Sept. 9, about a week after the deadline, Mr. Atkinson wrote to the intelligence oversight committees with the approval of Mr. Maguire, notifying them that a dispute had arisen over how the law applied to a whistle-blower complaint without disclosing its subject. Mr. Atkinson also wrote in a follow-up letter to Congress, “I understand that I am bound by the determination” of the Justice Department and “will continue to abide by that determination.”

The senior department official, defending Mr. Barr’s claim that Mr. Atkinson instead “ignored” the Justice Department’s interpretation, argued that if he had truly respected the Office of Legal Counsel’s role, he would not have told the oversight committees anything.

Yes. He claimed that the F.B.I. had opened its investigation into whether Trump campaign officials were coordinating with Russia’s election interference “without any basis.” But the official who decided to open the investigation, Bill Priestap, then the assistant director of the F.B.I.’s counterintelligence division, did so on the basis of certain facts.

Specifically, after WikiLeaks started dumping out stolen Democratic emails believed to have been hacked by Russia and timed to disrupt the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Australia told the United States that two months earlier, a Trump campaign official, George Papadopoulos, had told one of its diplomats that Russia had offered to help the Trump campaign by anonymously disclosing “dirt” on Hillary Clinton.

Defending Mr. Barr’s claim that the F.B.I. did not have “any basis” to open an investigation, the department official pointed to the apparent opinion of John H. Durham, a prosecutor whom Mr. Barr has assigned to reinvestigate the Russia investigators, that the F.B.I. should have opened a “preliminary investigation” rather than a “full investigation.”

The Justice Department inspector general, Michael E. Horowitz, concluded that the facts available to Mr. Priestap were an adequate basis for a full investigation, but said in testimony last year that Mr. Durham had disagreed with him and believed the factual basis for the inquiry only rose to the standard for a preliminary one.

Yes. He has repeatedly come under fire for misleading the public about the findings and analysis of the special counsel who eventually took over the case, Robert S. Mueller III.

Last month, Reggie B. Walton, a federal judge appointed by a Republican president, declared in a ruling that Mr. Barr’s initial account of the then-still-secret Mueller report was so “distorted” and “misleading” that the court could not trust him. Judge Walton also suggested that the attorney general had made “a calculated attempt to influence public discourse about the Mueller report in favor of President Trump.”

The Justice Department has said it “stands by” Mr. Barr’s statements without addressing the substance of the judge’s critique.

Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.

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