Heather Cox Richardson
The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) today asked six former presidents and their vice presidents to look to see if they have any presidential records, including documents marked classified, in their possession. It sent the letters to representatives for former presidents Donald Trump, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan and former vice presidents Mike Pence, Joe Biden, Dick Cheney, Al Gore, and Dan Quayle. It did not make a similar request to former president Jimmy Carter because although he was the one who signed the Presidential Records Act into law, it did not go into effect until he left office.
This request illuminates the crucial importance in our society of disinformation: deliberate lies or misdirection to convince people of things that are not true.
At this point, documents bearing classification markings have turned up in the possession of Trump, Biden, and Pence. The NARA request suggests the possibility that other high-ranking officials also have documents that they are unaware they hold. Trump and his allies insist that the special counsel investigating him for potential criminal behavior means that he is being treated differently than the others, with the implication that he is being treated unfairly.
But the issue has never been about the documents themselves, although it is a problem that any of the former officials have documents marked classified. The issue was that NARA repeatedly asked Trump to produce documents it knew he had, and that he repeatedly refused even after being subpoenaed. Finally, the Department of Justice felt obliged to get a court order to search his property, and even now his lawyers refuse to sign off on paperwork saying he has turned in all the documents he stole. In contrast, Biden and Pence apparently did not know they had any documents with classified markings, alerted NARA as soon as they realized it, and have cooperated with authorities.
The cases are not the same.
For a long time now, the right wing has muddied the political waters by creating such confusion over things that should be clear—flooding the zone with sh*t, as Trump advisor Stephen Bannon put it—that people can’t figure out what is really going on.
An attempt to continue that strategy is what’s behind the House Republicans’ establishment of a select subcommittee on the “weaponization” of the federal government, positioned under the Committee on the Judiciary. The representatives Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) has put on that committee are grandstanders, and they have indicated they plan to argue that the Biden administration has politicized the government. Considering the representatives involved, we can expect lots of yelling and sound bites for right-wing media, designed to build the narrative they want their voters to believe.
But the truth is that it was the Trump administration that sought to weaponize the government against their perceived enemies. News broke today that Trump’s attorney general, William Barr, deliberately tried to use the Department of Justice to undermine the officials who had—according to the Justice Department’s own independent inspector general, Michael E. Horowitz—launched the Russia investigation properly and with good reason.
The story, by Charlie Savage, Adam Goldman, and Katie Benner in the New York Times, also told us more. After the report by Special Counsel Robert Mueller detailing contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives came out, Barr consistently spun the information inaccurately to make the best possible case for Trump. He convinced many Americans to think that there was nothing between the Trump campaign and Russia, although in fact Mueller and the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report that came out afterward concluded the opposite.
Barr undermined not only the Mueller report but also the inspector general’s report, ignoring its findings and telling the press—inaccurately—that the FBI had opened the Russia investigation on the “thinnest of suspicions that, in my view, were insufficient,” or “without any basis.” (In fact, the FBI opened the inquiry when an Australian diplomat warned that a member of the Trump campaign had boasted that Russian operatives had “dirt” on Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. Australia and the United States, along with Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, are part of an intelligence alliance known informally as Five Eyes. It was this information that Horowitz found compelling enough to open an investigation.)
After the Mueller report’s release, Barr appointed a special counsel, John Durham, to investigate the investigators. Durham used the very tactics of which the Republicans’ accused the Democrats, using bad information to try to get information on a private citizen. But no matter how hard he tried, he did not, in fact, turn up information indicating the investigators had conducted themselves improperly.
What Durham did find, though, were accusations from Italian officials that Trump himself might have engaged in financial crimes. The accusations were too serious for him and Barr to ignore. Barr authorized Durham’s inquiry to become a criminal inquiry, but here’s the kicker: when news of that new phase became public, Barr sat back as media spun the new criminal inquiry as proof of misbehavior on the part of those who had conducted the Russia inquiry. Trump even told followers that the criminals were former president Barack Obama, former vice president Joe Biden, and leading FBI and intelligence officials. The actual target of the criminal investigation was Trump himself.
In the end, Durham never found anything to contradict Inspector General Horowitz’s report saying the Russia investigation was begun properly, and the only cases he brought failed. But the cozy relationship between him and Barr violated department policy for special counsels, according to legal analyst Lisa Rubin, as they allegedly discussed the case frequently, including occasionally over drinks. A special counsel is supposed to be independent.
The New York Times article details how the Trump administration worked overtime to use the apparatus of government to convince the American people that there was nothing to the Russia investigation, although repeated reports said otherwise.
This story seems especially relevant in light of the arrest this week of Charles McGonigal, who was the special agent in charge of counterintelligence in the FBI’s New York Field Office from 2016 to 2018 and, before that, was the section chief of the Cyber-Counterintelligence Coordination Section at FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C. McGonigal supervised and participated in investigations of Russian oligarchs. McGonigal is charged with working for Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch close to Vladimir Putin. Deripaska was also a close associate of political operative Paul Manafort, who ran Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
In a powerful Twitter thread today, scholar of authoritarianism Timothy Snyder noted that authorities, as well as the American people, have not taken the threat of Russian influence in our politics seriously enough. He pointed out that in 2016, McCarthy himself i said he thought Putin was paying Trump, and now, just after the McGonigal story broke, McCarthy threw Adam Schiff—who was key in chasing down Trump’s machinations over Ukraine—off the House intelligence committee. “Schiff is [an] expert on Russian influence operations,” Snyder wrote. “It exhibits carelessness about national security to exclude him. It is downright suspicious to exclude him now.”
Meanwhile, newly elected House Republican Cory Mills of Florida, endorsed by Trump, handed out defused grenades today on the floor of the House. Mills is an election denier who boasted on his website that he sold tear gas used on Black Lives Matter protesters. Mills accompanied the grenades with a note suggesting he was sending them because McCarthy has put him on the Armed Services and Foreign Affairs Committees.
But, as with most of the performances coming out of the right wing these days, that explanation seems intended to be misdirection. It’s impossible to ignore the threat wrapped up in handing a colleague a grenade.