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Trump Revives ‘Obamagate’ Conspiracy on Moves by Grenell, Barr

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 5/15/2020 Chris Strohm

(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump has complained from the start of his presidency that Barack Obama and anti-Trump factions in the Justice Department and U.S. intelligence agencies misused their power to undermine him.

Now, Ric Grenell, Trump’s acting spy chief, and Attorney General William Barr have taken highly unusual steps that are prompting accusations they’re using the same agencies to protect Trump and bolster his “Obamagate” conspiracy theory against Democrats in the months before the November election.

Amid the dire developments of the coronavirus pandemic, Trump is using the new actions to fire up his political base through renewed attention to what he described in a tweet Thursday as the “biggest political crime and scandal” in U.S. history. He’s also depicted former Vice President Joe Biden, his presumptive re-election opponent, as a key player in those unspecified crimes.

“Joe Biden used the federal government to ILLEGALLY SPY on my 2016 campaign and to further the Russian Collusion Delusion,” Trump said in a fund-raising email on Thursday.

Richard Grenell wearing a suit and tie: Mike Pompeo Visits Germany © Getty Images Mike Pompeo Visits Germany

Richard Grenell

Photographer: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Last week, Barr took the unusual step of abandoning the Justice Department’s prosecution of Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser, even though he pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents. Barr said “a crime cannot be established here” because there wasn’t a legitimate reason to investigate Flynn.

Then on Wednesday, Republican senators released a memo that had been marked “Secret” until Grenell declassified it. It listed officials in Obama’s administration -- including Biden -- who may have learned about actions by Flynn in late 2016 and early 2017 through so-called unmasking requests.

“I was never a part, or had any knowledge of, any criminal investigation into Flynn while I was in office. Period,” Biden said Thursday night on MSNBC.

Biden’s spokesman, Andrew Bates, said the names were “selectively leaked by Republicans abusing their congressional powers to act as arms of the Trump campaign after having them provided by a partisan official installed for this very purpose.”

Grenell paved the way for the memo’s release even though it’s part of an ongoing Justice Department probe -- ordered by Barr -- into the origins of the Trump-Russia investigation. Traditionally, the Justice Department would try to block making material public during a high-profile investigation.

Trump has promised more is coming, suggesting a steady drip of allegations and disclosures of sensitive matters until Election Day.

The president and his allies say they’re looking forward especially to information coming from the inquiry that was ordered by Barr and is being conducted by U.S. Attorney John Durham. He’s looking into whether Justice Department and FBI officials acted improperly in their investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and whether anyone from Trump’s campaign conspired in it. Special Counsel Robert Mueller took over the Russia probe in May 2017.

Durham declined to comment, according to spokesman Tom Carson.

Read more: Memo Names Obama Officials Who May Have Seen Flynn Report

Barr has defended his decisions in dropping the charges against Flynn and in other matters, although almost 2,000 former Justice Department officials issued an open letter on May 11 expressing outrage over Barr’s move in the Flynn case. They said the attorney general was assaulting the rule of law and should resign.

Barr at one point said that Trump’s public comments about his decisions were making it difficult to do his job and said privately that he might resign.

Asked if Barr remains concerned that his actions are being politicized by Trump and others, his spokeswoman cited comments he made in a television interview last week.

“I’m doing the law’s bidding. I’m doing my duty under the law, as I see it,” Barr told CBS News. “It doesn’t matter what political party you’re in, or, you know, whether you’re rich or poor. We will follow the same standard for everybody.”

Read more: Flynn Judge Weighs Criminal Contempt Over Guilty Plea

While Trump told reporters Wednesday that “the unmasking is a massive thing,” it’s done routinely as officials try to learn the names of Americans withheld from intelligence summaries. Under Trump’s administration, the National Security Agency unmasked an American’s identity about 17,000 times in 2018 and 10,000 times in 2019, according to statistics kept by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

“Unmasking” doesn’t mean making public the names in intelligence reports, which could be illegal. The list of requests declassified by Grenell provides no indication of who provided the media with information about conversations that Flynn had with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. in December 2016.

Graham’s Hearings

In a tweet on Thursday, the president prodded Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham to call Obama to testify.

a man wearing a suit and tie talking on a cell phone: Senators Vote On Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Reauthorization Act © Getty Images Senators Vote On Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Reauthorization Act

Lindsey Graham at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on May 14.

Photgorapher: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Graham, a South Carolina Republican, demurred on that unprecedented notion but promised to conduct oversight hearings starting in June into Crossfire Hurricane, the code name for the FBI counterintelligence investigation into links between Trump’s associates, including Flynn, and Russian officials.

“Was there legitimate reason to conclude the Trump campaign had colluded with the Russians?” Graham asked.

Flynn’s case has become a political lightning rod and a symbol for claims by Trump and his allies that Obama administration officials carried out illegal operations to sabotage his presidency. The retired general was dismissed by Trump just weeks into his job and confessed to lying to the FBI by denying he discussed U.S. sanctions with Sergey Kislyak, who was the Russian ambassador at the time.

Barr’s Escalation

Since becoming attorney general in 2019, Barr has moved from raising skeptical questions about the Trump-Russia investigation to judgments that are similar to Trump’s own rhetoric.

The attorney general said in December that the investigation was “flimsy,” “baseless,” and a “complete sham” marred by “inexplicable behavior” and “gross abuse.” He said investigators jumped to conclusions and should have alerted the Trump campaign as soon as concerns about foreign contacts were raised.

“It quickly became apparent that it was a travesty,” Barr said. “It’s hard to look at this stuff and not think it was a gross abuse.”

In February, Barr also ordered prosecutors to reduce their sentencing recommendation for Roger Stone, a longtime Trump associate, who like Flynn was prosecuted as a result of the Mueller investigation. Four career prosecutors working on the Stone case withdrew from it after Barr’s order.

Durham is investigating the issue of unmasking as part of his broader investigation, Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said on May 12.

“I can tell you that his team is working diligently to get to the bottom of what happened,” Kupec told Fox News host Martha MacCallum. “What happened to candidate Trump and then President Trump was one of the greatest political injustices in American history and should never happen again.”

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