WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump tried somewhat clumsily last year to revoke the security clearance of the former CIA director who played a role in opening the Russia investigation. He then wanted to release classified documents to prove he was the target of a "witch hunt."
Both attempts were hampered by aides who slow-rolled the president and Justice Department officials who fought Trump, warning that he was jeopardizing national security.
But this past week, Attorney General William Barr engineered a new approach. At Barr's urging, Trump granted him new authorities to examine the start of the Russia investigation, showing a new level of sophistication for an old line of attack. Unlike Trump's hollow threats and name-calling, Barr's examination of how the intelligence community investigated the Trump campaign could offer a more effective blueprint for the president to take aim at his perceived political enemies.
"The president is not known for the precision, judiciousness or thoughtfulness of his attacks, but he is in attack mode here, and we seem to be opening a new front," said David Kris, the head of the Justice Department's national security division during the Obama administration.
A spokeswoman for the Justice Department and a lawyer for Trump did not respond to messages seeking comment. Trump told reporters Friday that he hoped the attorney general "looks at everything, because there was a hoax that was perpetrated on our country."
Trump took the highly unusual step Thursday of granting Barr the power to declassify the most closely guarded secrets of the CIA and the country's 15 other intelligence agencies. Barr had asked for the authority to facilitate his review of the intelligence agencies' involvement in the early stages of the Russia investigation.
The president delegated it hours after declaring that several officials overseeing the inquiry had committed treason, a capital offense.
Trump's latest action is a drastic escalation of his yearslong assault on the intelligence community. Since taking office, he has tried to cement the narrative that the Obama administration illegally spied on his campaign, making an apparent attempt to distract from the investigation into his associates' ties to Russia.
Now he appears to have in Barr an aide willing to open an investigation to prove his suspicions.
Barr has not made his motivation clear. But as attorney general, he has aligned himself with Trump's dim view of the inquiry. He declined to knock down the notion that the Russia investigation was a witch hunt and described investigative efforts into the Trump campaign as "spying."
Barr also cleared Trump of wrongdoing in the obstruction of justice inquiry by special counsel Robert Mueller, whose investigators pointedly declined to do so.
Barr served as a driving force in securing the power to declassify government secrets, and the lead-up to Thursday's announcement demonstrated an amount of planning that went beyond previous similar forays by Trump and his aides.
Barr asked for the White House to grant him additional, far-reaching powers for his review, according to two administration officials.
When the White House released the memo, it landed with authority and a presentation that signaled a concerted effort unlike Trump's tweets or stream-of-consciousness comments to reporters.
For Democrats, Barr's newfound powers served as a sign that Trump had found a new, and potentially effective, tool.
"This is a president who will lash out and destroy anything if he believes it will suit his interests," said House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif. "And he now has a capable lieutenant in the attorney general to help him do just that."