Updated May 18, 2020 - 6:09 pm
WASHINGTON — Attorney General William Barr on Monday declared himself to be wholly uninterested in being prodded by President Donald Trump to conduct a criminal investigation of former President Barack Obama or former Vice President Joe Biden.
“As long as I’m attorney general,” Barr said during a virtual Department of Justice news conference, “the justice system will not be used for partisan political ends.”
But Barr described the federal probe by special counsel Robert Mueller into Russian interference in the 2016 election as “a grave injustice” with law enforcement and intelligence officials pushing “a false and utterly baseless Russian collusion narrative against the president.”
At the same time, Barr said, he would not engage in a “tit-for-tat exercise.”
Even as the nation’s top lawman said he did not believe that Obama or Biden would become targets of U.S. Attorney John Durham’s investigation into the Russia probe’s origins, Barr gave no such assurance to onetime law enforcement and national security brass.
“Our concern over potential criminality is focused on others,” Barr noted.
Last week, Trump called the Russia probe “the biggest political crime and scandal in history” and tweeted that Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Lindsey Graham should call Obama to testify before his committee.
Mueller’s investigation exonerated Trump and his campaign from charges they colluded with Russia to win the 2016 election, but specifically did not dismiss allegations the president had tried to obstruct the investigation.
“I don’t think now’s the time for me to do that. I don’t know if that’s even possible,” Graham responded at the time.
“I understand President Trump’s frustration,” Graham added, “but be careful what you wish for.”
Former Nevada U.S. attorney and FBI deputy general counsel Gregory Brower told the Review-Journal that Barr “said all the right things in terms of the role of (the Justice Department), but then he repeatedly brought up the Durham investigation, which seemed to arguably contradict what he was talking about.”
Brower said it is inappropriate for the attorney general to discuss an investigation while it is ongoing, and he strongly disagreed with Barr’s assertion that the Russia probe was an abuse of power.
But Tom Fitton, of the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch, called the Russia investigation “sedition” and tweeted, “Obama did it. And Barr just announced DOJ will do nothing about it.”
Barr made his comments during a news conference at which he and FBI Director Christopher Wray announced that they had established that the shooter who killed three sailors and severely wounded eight Americans at Naval Air Station Pensacola on Dec. 6 was linked to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and had been over “the years, months and days leading up to the attack.”
Barr used the moment to call out Apple for refusing to help authorities unlock the two iPhones owned by Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, a Saudi cadet training with the U.S. military, who was shot and killed during the attack.
The Justice Department has been battling with Apple unsuccessfully since the San Bernardino, Calif., terrorist attack that killed 14 in 2015 for the ability to override the iPhone’s password protections.
Lacking a backdoor into iPhone encryption, Barr credited “the relentless efforts and ingenuity of FBI technicians” for unlocking Alshamrani’s phones. Barr also slammed Apple for refusing to help federal officials with search warrants while cooperating with China’s Communist Party and Russia surveillance efforts and censorship policies.
Wray complained that Apple’s inaction came with a cost – that public servants toiled for months “just to access evidence that we had court authorized search warrants for months ago.”
“We really needed this months ago,” Wray noted, back in December when courts authorized a warrant.
In a statement, Apple responded that the company “responded to the FBI’s first requests for information just hours after the attack on December 6, 2019” and had provided iCloud backups, account information and transactional data for multiple accounts to authorities.
But Apple added that “we do not believe in the creation of a backdoor — one which will make every device vulnerable to bad actors who threaten our national security and the data security of our customers. There is no such thing as a backdoor just for the good guys.”
Asked about Barr’s comments during a meeting with restaurant executives in the State Dining Room, Trump said that he was “a little surprised” at what Barr said, as he believes that if the tables were turned, Democrats would investigate him.
Former Obama adviser David Axelrod told CNN that Barr did the right thing. “He’s absolutely right that a contrived investigation for the purposes of winning an election would be the wrong thing to do.”
Also on CNN, former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Penn., said of the notion, “We don’t prosecute former presidents for things that they did in office.”
“Many of the technology companies that advocate most loudly for warrant-proof encryption in the name of privacy rights are, at the same time, willing to accommodate authoritarian regimes when it serves their business interests.”
-Attorney General William Barr