Bill Barr goes scapegoat-hunting to boost Donald Trump's conspiracy theories

Attorney general is deploying Department of Justice resources to prop up Trump's baseless, paranoid theories

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published May 14, 2019 1:44PM (EDT)

William Barr (Getty/Alex Wong)
William Barr (Getty/Alex Wong)

As many people — including myself — predicted,  after House Democrats failed to force Attorney General William Barr to face any serious consequences for ignoring the rule of law, Barr has only been emboldened to go further. Late Monday, it was reported that Barr, clearly at the behest of President Trump, has opened yet another investigation of the FBI, specifically targeting agents who took part in the investigation of the Russian criminal conspiracy to interfere with the 2016 election, and of potential ties between the Trump campaign and that conspiracy.

This cannot be stated strenuously enough: There is no reason beyond sheer propaganda for the Department of Justice to do such a thing. Special counsel Robert Mueller and his team were quite thorough in explaining why the FBI took an interest in the Trump campaign's ties to Russia in the first place. The investigation was entirely legal and based on the evident fact that multiple campaign officials — most of whom have now pled guilty or been convicted — were engaged in shady behavior that caused informants to blow the whistle.

But as usually happens with Trump and his allies, conspiracy theories — most of which are half-formed and incoherent — have grown like weeds, fueled by Trump's half-baked and evidence-free claims that he was the target of illegal spying. These false claims, which involve hated targets like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, came directly from the paranoid minds of conspiracy theorists. It , serves no purpose for Barr to assign U.S. attorney John Durham to this new investigation — other than to lend credibility to nonsensical claims that everyone knows Trump pulled directly out of his rear end.

There should be no doubt that this is Trump, with Barr's assistance, furthering his larger project of authoritarianism and undermining democracy. Hijacking the criminal justice system to fuel conspiracy theories, terrorize political opponents and demonize legitimate investigations into official misconduct is the sort of thing that should ring all sorts of alarm bells. Doubly so, as it seems a similar falsified harassment investigation is being pushed against former Vice President Joe Biden, for the sole purpose of creating a false scandal during the 2020 election campaign, much like the false scandal around Clinton's emails in 2016.

To put it more simply, using government officials to create lies to smear your political opponents is fascist behavior. If Trump gets away with it, that will put the country one step further down a dark and scary road.

But beyond the usual #Resistance grifters on Twitter, there's been very little uproar about this latest move by the Trump administration.

Part of this is understandable: It's just been drowned out by the other Trumpian shenanigans that constantly overwhelm the news cycle. But another reason is it's hard to imagine anything too substantive coming of this. There's no chance this new investigation turning up anything substantive, especially against prominent Trump opponents in the Democratic Party who are the focus of these conspiracy theories. It doesn't seem that Barr has reached the point of being willing to blatantly falsify evidence in order to justify charges against innocent people. Trump can continue to lead his voters in chants of "Lock her up!" but there's currently no reason to believe that Trump will be able to convert his false accusations against Clinton and Obama into genuine arrests, much less convictions.

Nonetheless, it should be scary enough that Barr has been shaking the trees at the CIA and FBI in order to find some federal official he can scapegoat to appease Trump. Trump has already bullied people like Peter Strzok and Andrew McCabe out of office, in order to convince his gullible followers that he's the target of a "deep state" conspiracy. Now it appears that the Trump administration intends to find more law enforcement officials to scapegoat, ruining their lives and making public spectacles of them in order to shore up conspiracy theories.

Ian Millhiser of ThinkProgress expressed concern over email about Barr reaving "through the careers of career civil servants who did nothing wrong," but were involved in lawful investigations into the wrongdoing of Trump and his allies.

"That's going to discourage honest civil servants from conducting those investigations," he added. "And ensure that the quality of people who do somehow wind up on those investigations is not great."

There is every sign that Barr intends to keep escalating this scapegoat-hunt. House Democrats' failure to do anything more than issue a toothless ruling finding Barr in contempt of Congress simply signaled to Trump's DOJ hitman that he can do what he wants without fear of serious consequence. If and when he succeeds at ruining the careers of more upright civil servants to feed the endless hunger of Trump's vampiric propaganda machine, Barr will only feel more emboldened to take even stronger steps. The administration will get bolder and bolder in falsifying information and creating scapegoats to justify its conspiracy theories, with the obvious, ultimate goal of muddying voters' understanding of who, exactly, the criminals are here.

Such strategies may well prove effective at accomplishing their main purpose, which is getting Trump re-elected in 2020. The idea is to fill the headlines with so many investigations and counter-investigations that voters stop trying to figure out which ones are are real (like the Russia investigation) and which are fake (like the "investigation into the investigation"). It will be tempting for such voters to simply dismiss everyone in D.C. as irredeemably corrupt and justify voting for Trump again on the grounds that no one is any better than he is.

That is, after all, how "Clinton's emails" worked. Hardly any regular voters could explain the substance of the scandal, which was dumb, but most of them had heard that a scandal existed and that was enough for many to decide that with that much smoke, there had to be fire. But it was just the right-wing smoke machine. Now that smoke machine is being funded by taxpayers, through the Department of Justice and the nation's top law enforcement official, and more innocent people's livelihoods and reputations are on the line.

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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