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Law & the Courts

Barr’s Mandate to Declassify

Attorney General William Barr testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., April 9, 2019 (Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)

President Trump has given Attorney General Bill Barr the authority to declassify information having to do with “intelligence activities relating to the campaigns in the 2016 Presidential election and certain related matters.”

The late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D., N.Y.) was pretty convincing on the point that the federal government classifies too much information that should be available to the public, and it would certainly be worth having more information about how the federal government handled investigations in 2016 and afterward. Trump is acting well within his constitutional authority.

But there is the possibility that declassification will be pursued selectively in a way that furthers the administration’s preferred political narratives. If Bill Barr still had the high reputation he had in both parties when he started this job, that suspicion would have been lessened. But he has spun for the president aggressively, which is within the rights of an AG but has reduced his capital. (Not that some of his critics themselves have much of a reputation for sobriety to lose. This morning Rep. Hakeem Jeffries called him the so-called attorney general on Meet the Press.)

The order also appears in a worse light because the president has suggested over the last week that James Comey, Andrew McCabe, and others had committed “treason” — even after being reminded that treason is punishable by death.

Trump’s campaign against Comey et al also creates a political problem for Republicans. GOP officials keep insisting that it is time to move on from the endless controversy over alleged Russian collusion and obstruction of justice, while also extending that controversy. Barr himself said to Congress that “we have to stop using the criminal-justice system as a political weapon.” Perhaps he should make that case to a president who is, like a lot of his opponents, very free in throwing around the term “treason.”

Update: After I made several of these points on NPR, Tim Graham of the Media Research Center published a post saying I’d gone “Full David Brooks on Collusion, Spygate.” I don’t recall saying anything about collusion; nor does Graham quote anything from me on that subject. Maybe going full David Brooks means getting through an interview without bringing it up? Here‘s what I wrote about it when the Barr letter was released in late March: “There’s no way for President Donald Trump’s opponents to spin it away: He just won a big victory and the Russia-collusion story is over. ”

Since Graham has nothing to say in response to any point I made, his misleading headline is actually his most lucid comment.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.


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