Attorney General William Barr on Michael Flynn, Obamacare and coronavirus restrictions – Transcript
Editor's Note: CBS News has published the full video of its interview with Attorney General William Barr, which took place on May 7. Barr responds to questions about the Justice Department's decision to dismiss charges against Michael Flynn and continued investigations into the matter. The written transcript of the entire interview and several video pieces were previously published.
The Justice Department on Thursday moved to dismiss charges against Michael Flynn, President Trump's first national security adviser. Flynn pleaded guilty in December 2017 to lying to the FBI about his contacts with the former Russian ambassador to the U.S. — but in January, Flynn asked the court to allow him to withdraw his guilty plea, citing the government's "bad faith, vindictiveness and breach of the plea agreement."
In a motion filed in U.S. district court, federal prosecutors asked the judge to dismiss the single count of making false statements to the FBI, claiming the government concluded that the FBI's interview of Flynn "was untethered to, and unjustified by, the FBI's counterintelligence investigation."
Attorney General William Barr joined CBS News senior investigative correspondent Catherine Herridge to discuss the reasoning behind the motion.
Read Herridge's full interview with Barr below.
Catherine Herridge: Attorney General Barr, thank you for speaking first to CBS News.
Attorney General William Barr: Hi, Catherine.
What action has the Justice Department taken today in the Michael Flynn case?
We dismissed or are moving to dismiss the charges against General Flynn. At any stage during a proceeding, even after indictment or a conviction or a guilty plea, the Department can move to dismiss the charges if we determine that our standards of prosecution have not been met.
As you recall, in January, General Flynn moved to withdraw his plea, and also alleged misconduct by the government. And at that time, I asked a very seasoned U.S. attorney, who had spent ten years as an FBI agent and ten years as a career prosecutor, Jeff Jensen, from St. Louis, to come in and take a fresh look at this whole case. And he found some additional material. And last week, he came in and briefed me and made a recommendation that we dismiss the case, which I fully agreed with, as did the U.S. attorney in D.C. So we've moved to dismiss the case.
So this decision to dismiss by the Justice Department, this all came together really within the last week, based on new evidence?
Right. Well U.S. Attorney Jensen since January has been investigating this. And he reported to me last week.
Does Judge Sullivan have a say?
Yes. Under the rules, the case can be dismissed with leave of court. Generally, the courts have said that that provision is in there to protect defendants, to make sure the government doesn't play games by bringing a charge and then dismissing it; bringing another charge, dismissing it. But he does have a say.
But is the Flynn case effectively over today from the Justice Department's point of view?
We think the case against Flynn for false statements should be dismissed, as far as the Department of Justice is concerned.
And depending on the judge's decision, could charges be brought against General Flynn in the future for other actions he took during the presidential campaign or during the transition?
Well, no charges like that have been brought. And I'm not gonna speculate about what charges there may be.
All of that said, General Flynn pled guilty to lying to federal investigators during his interview in January of 2017. And Flynn admitted in court, quote, his "false statements and omissions impeded and otherwise had a material impact on the FBI's ongoing investigation into the existence of any links or coordination between individuals with the campaign and Russia's efforts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election." Does the fact remain that General Flynn lied to federal investigators?
Well to constitute a false statement, you need two things. One, you need a false statement, lie. And then it has to be material to a legitimate investigation. And I think on the question of lying, it's as Comey, Director Comey said just a few months after this episode, he said it was a close question. And that, while you might make that argument, it was a very close question.
But it's on the question of materiality that we feel really that a crime cannot be established here because there was not, in our view, a legitimate investigation going on. They did not have a basis for a counterintelligence investigation against Flynn at that stage, based on a perfectly legitimate and appropriate call he made as a member of the transition. So.
Let me just also say that when he pled, the issue of materiality is related to whether the government has a bona fide investigation going on. And that's information that's really within the control of the government. The individual party would really not have that information. So as new information just became available that has a bearing on whether there was a legitimate investigation, that requires us, our duty, we think is to dismiss the case.
Does the new evidence show that the counterintelligence case against General Flynn was simply left open to lay a trap for lying?
Yes. Essentially. They had started a counterintelligence investigation during the summer, as you know, related to the campaign. But in December, the team, the Crossfire Hurricane team, was closing that and determined they had found nothing to justify continuing with that investigation against Flynn.
On the very day they prepared the final papers, the seventh floor, that is the director's office and the deputy director's office up there, sent down word they should keep that open. So that they could try to go and question Flynn about this call he had with the Russian ambassador.
Let me say that, at that point, he was the designated national security adviser for President-Elect Trump, and was part of the transition, which is recognized by the government and funded by the government as an important function to bring in a new administration. And it is very typical, very common for the national security team of the incoming president to communicate with foreign leaders.
And that call, there was nothing wrong with it whatever. In fact, it was laudable. He-- and it was nothing inconsistent with the Obama administration's policies. And it was in U.S. interests. He was saying to the Russians, you know, "Don't escalate." And they asked him if he remembered saying that, and he said he didn't remember that.
What should Americans take away from your actions in the Flynn case today?
Well, as I said in my confirmation hearing, one of the reasons I came back is because I was concerned that people were feeling there were two standards of justice in this country. And that the political and that the justice, or the law enforcement process was being used to play political games. And I wanted to make sure that we restore confidence in the system. There's only one standard of justice. And I believe that this case, that justice in this case requires dismissing the charges against General Flynn.
Are the actions you're taking today bigger than the Flynn case?
Well, I think they are bigger because I hope that it sends the message that there is one standard of justice in this country. And that's the way it will be. It doesn't matter what political party you're in, or, you know, whether you're rich or poor. We will follow the same standard for everybody. Was there a crime committed, do we believe a crime was committed? And do we have the evidence to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt? And we don't think either of those standards were applicable here.
Has this been one of the most consequential decisions that you have made as attorney general?
I don't know. I let other people judge that. It's certainly – I feel good about the decision because that's what we're here to do. We're here to do what's right.
Not what's easy.
Was it an easy decision?
It was an easy decision, yes. I think easy because once I saw all the facts and some of the tactics used by the FBI in this instance and also the legal problems with the case, it was an easy decision. You know, one thing people will see when they look at the documents is how Director Comey purposely went around the Justice Department and ignored Deputy Attorney General Yates.
Deputy Attorney General Yates, I've disagreed with her about a couple of things, but, you know, here she upheld the fine tradition of the Department of Justice. She said that the new administration has to be treated just like the Obama administration, and they should go and tell the White House about their findings. They and, you know, Director Comey ran around that.
When the special counsel report was released last year, you were accused by critics of putting your thumb on the scale in the president's favor. Are you doing the president's bidding in General Flynn's case?
No, I'm doing the law's bidding. I'm doing my duty under the law, as I see it.
President Trump recently tweeted about the Flynn case. He said, "What happened to General Flynn should never be allowed to happen to a citizen of the United States again." Were you influenced in any way by the president or his tweets?
No, not at all. And, you know, I made clear during my confirmation hearing that I was gonna look into what happened in 2016 and '17. I made that crystal clear. I was very concerned about what happened. I was gonna get to the bottom of it. And that included the treatment of General Flynn.
And that is part of John Durham, U.S. Attorney John Durham's portfolio. The reason we had to take this action now and why U.S. Attorney Jeff Jensen came in was because it was prompted by the motions that were filed in that case. And so we had to sorta move more quickly on it. But John Durham is still looking at all of this.
This is one particular episode, but we view it as part of a number of related acts. And we're looking at the whole pattern of conduct.
The whole pattern of conduct before?
Yeah, the election.
After the election? Okay. You talk about the importance of timing in this decision. What was the evidence that helped you decide this issue?
I think a very important evidence here was that this was not a bona fide counterintelligence investigation – was that they were closing the investigation in December. They started that process. And on January 4th, they were closing it.
And that when they heard about the phone call, which is – the FBI had the transcripts too – there's no question as to what was discussed. The FBI knew exactly what was discussed. And General Flynn, being the former director of the DIA, said to them, you know, "You listen, you listen to everything. You know, you know what was said."
So there was no mystery about the call. But they initially tried some theories of how they could open another investigation, which didn't fly. And then they found out that they had not technically closed the earlier investigation. And they kept it open for the express purpose of trying to catch, lay a perjury trap for General Flynn.
They didn't warn him, the way we usually would be required by the Department. They bypassed the Justice Department. They bypassed the protocols at the White House and so forth. These were things that persuaded me that there was not a legitimate counterintelligence investigation going on.
You know you're gonna take a lot of incoming, as they say in the military, for this decision. Are you prepared for that?
Yeah, I'm prepared for that. I also think it's sad that nowadays these partisan feelings are so strong that people have lost any sense of justice. And the groups that usually worry about civil liberties and making sure that there's proper procedures followed and standards set seem to be ignoring it and willing to destroy people's lives and see great injustices done.
Just to be clear, you said this was your decision.
Did you consult or discuss the decision in any way with President Trump?
Did you advise the White House that you had made this decision?
No. They were aware, because of the schedule, that the Department would be saying something in court. And I said that we'd make up our mind what to do and file, you know, sometime before Monday. File our responses to what was going on in court. But other than that, no.
So the White House became aware of the decision when it filed today?
No. Okay. A lot of records have come to light. You talk about the records for closing the Flynn case. Were those new records to you? Because--
--of Jensen? Okay. All right. In addition to those records, there are handwritten notes from January 24th, 2017. This was the day of Michael Flynn's interview. And the writer states, "What is our goal? Truth, admission, or to get him to lie so we can prosecute him or get him fired?" Is that a routine, by-the-book conversation between senior FBI officials?
Well, as many people point out, you know, it's not unusual. In the course of a bona fide investigation, when you're doing a criminal investigation or a counterintelligence investigation, that has a basis it's not unusual to have an interview with someone and expecting that they might lie. But here's what's different here is that there was no underlying investigation that was legitimate. And the whole exercise was just about creating the lie.
But that language, does it bother you at all?
Well, my understanding is, just looking at the documents, the way I interpret them, is there was a disagreement. And that one of the agents, one of the senior agents felt that "Let's not be game playing here. We have the transcript. Show him the transcripts and find out what you wanna find out."
Instead of instead of, you know, essentially reading excerpts and saying, "Do you remember saying that?" which seemed to be all for the purpose of trying to catch him in something that could be called a lie. But, again, because the FBI knew about the call, there was nothing wrong with the call, the FBI has the transcript of the call, whether or not he remembered saying something is not material to anything.
Who at the FBI was driving this?
Well, this particular episode, it looks like the impetus came from the seventh floor.
The seventh floor is Director Comey.
I believe it's Director Comey and the deputy's office.
Based on the evidence that you have seen, did senior FBI officials conspire to throw out the national security adviser?
Well, as I said, this is a particular episode. And it has some troubling features to it, as we've discussed. But I think, you know, that's a question that really has to wait an analysis of all the different episodes that occurred through the summer of 2016 and the first several months of President Trump's administration.
What are the consequences for these individuals?
Well, you know, I don't wanna, you know, we're in the middle of looking at all of this. John Durham's investigation, and U.S. Attorney Jensen, I'm gonna ask him to do some more work on different items as well. And I'm gonna wait till all the evidence is, and I get their recommendations as to what they found and how serious it is.
But if, you know, if we were to find wrongdoing, in the sense of any criminal act, you know, obviously we would, we would follow through on that. But, again, you know, just because something may even stink to high heaven and be, you know, appear everyone to be bad we still have to apply the right standard and be convinced that there's a violation of a criminal statute. And that we can prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. The same standard applies to everybody.
It sounds to me like one of your objectives is to never allow the Justice Department to be used as a political weapon. That's what you're saying you think happened here?
I think, yes. I think there was an aspect of that. And I think, for the last several decades, the Department has been used more and more, or the efforts have been made to draw the Department into that. And I think it's very important that that not happen.
People, you know, we should choose our leaders through the election process. And efforts to use the law enforcement process to change leaders or to disable administrations are incendiary in this country and destroy our republic.
Before we move on to some separate questions, many of these records should have been provided to Flynn's defense team long ago. Do you still have confidence in FBI Director Christopher Wray?
Well, you know, Chris Wray has always supported and been very helpful in various investigations we've been running. He cooperated fully with Durham, cooperated fully with Jensen. But, you know, there are a lot of cases in the Department of Justice and I don't consider it the director's responsibility to make sure that all the documents are produced in each case. So I don't-- I wouldn't say that this has affected my confidence in Director Wray.
Does Director Wray have what it takes to make the changes at the FBI?
Yeah, as I've said, you know, he's been a great partner to me in our effort to restore the American people's confidence in both the Department of Justice and the FBI. And we work very well together. And I think both of us know that we have to step up. That it's very important to restore the American people's confidence.
Does he have his arms around the gravity of what happened in 2016 and 2017?
I think he does.
Newly declassified footnotes in the Horowitz report suggest that the Steele dossier was likely the product of Russian disinformation. And there were multiple warnings to the FBI at that time, yet they continued to use that. How do you explain that?
I think that's one of the most troubling aspects of this whole thing. And, in fact, I said it in testimony on the Hill, I can't remember if it was my confirmation, that I said I was very concerned about the possibility that that dossier and Steele's activities were used as a vector for the Russians to inject disinformation into the political campaign.
I think that is something that Robert Mueller was responsible for looking at under his charter, which is the potential of Russian influence. But I think it was ignored and there was mounting indications that this could very well have been happening and no one really stopped to look at it.
These are very smart people who were working in the special counsel's office, and in senior levels of the FBI. So what drove them here?
Well, I think one of the things you have to guard against, both as a prosecutor and I think as an investigator, is that if you get too wedded to a particular outcome and you're pursuing a particular agenda, you close your eyes to anything that sort of doesn't fit with your preconception. And I think that's probably the phenomenon we're looking at here.
You know more about the investigation since Horowitz, since December. Do you see more evidence of personal or political bias today?
You know, I'm not gonna, again, get into reaching a conclusion at this point till I see everything. There's certainly more information that has come out that, you know, points in that direction. But I haven't reached a final conclusion.
Before we just move onto to a couple of off-topic questions, the last thing most Americans remember about General Flynn is that he resigned, was fired. And that he admitted lying to the FBI. Does the fact remain that he lied?
Well, you know, people sometimes plead to things that turn out not to be crimes. And as I said, the question of lying, you know, it's something he would know about. On its face, as Director Comey said, it's not so clear. But the question of materiality is not something he would know about. That's something that the government knows about. And we have now gotten into it, drilled down, obtained new information. And the Department of Justice is not persuaded that this was material to any legitimate counterintelligence investigation. So it was not a crime.
Before we leave this topic, is there anything that you would like to add?
Okay. Just on COVID-19. Some of the news of today. The valet at the White House has tested positive. Have you had any exposure or interaction with this valet?
I don't think I have, no.
Do you have a view on whether the president, the vice president should self-quarantine or be separated?
No, you know, I don't have a view on that. I don't know about how close they were physically or what the medical advice is the president gets. But we're tested pretty regularly when we're over at the White House to visit.
Every day, every other day?
It depends how frequently, though at least once a week, but sometimes, you know, if you've been around and could have been infected, you can get further testing.
The president said that he's urging the Supreme Court to overturn the Affordable Care Act when it's taken up in the Supreme Court later this year. What's your position? Is that something the Justice Department will continue to back?
Yes. You know, we had an opportunity, all the stakeholders in the administration, to discuss this, and the Department is going to be taking the position as the president states.
Even if that means stripping millions of Americans of their health care in the middle of a pandemic?
Well, the case isn't gonna be argued until October. And the president's made clear that he strongly supports coverage of preexisting conditions. And there will be coverage of preexisting conditions. And, you know, he expects to fix and replace Obamacare with a better health care system.
If governors continue to limit the size of gatherings, including religious services, what further action is the Justice Department prepared to take?
Well, I think initially, you know, at the very beginning of the crisis, before we knew very much — and while, in some places, the infection rates were skyrocketing and threatening to overwhelm our health care system, you know, the initial limitations may have been defensible. But as time goes by, it's harder to justify those kinds of blanket restrictions on religious practice.
I think, if people can follow social distancing by leaving space, wearing masks and so forth, there has to be accommodation to religious practice. The Department has already entered a few cases around the country where there have been these sweeping prohibitions against religion where there were comparable secular activities are not controlled the same way.
On the Bureau of Prisons-- currently 2,100 inmates and over 360 Bureau prison staff have tested positive for COVID-19. Will you make universal testing available to the inmates and the staff?
I think over time, we'll be testing and perhaps get to that point. You know, we got, right at the beginning, I dealt with FEMA and I was able to get some of the Abbott machines. And we've been building up our testing capacity. And we're doing more and more tests.
And, you know, we've been trying to keep our inmates as safe as we can. We let a lot of inmates who are older and don't pose a threat to the community, we've put them on home confinement to get 'em outta the institutions. So we're taking every measure we can to protect those inmates.
Generally speaking, historically, the infection rates roughly, from what I've seen, are comparable inside the institution (SIC) as they are in society at large. And we've been able to prevent our prisons from becoming Petri dishes where they sweep through with the same lethality that they have in, you know, nursing homes and so forth. It takes a lotta work, and the Bureau of Prisons has been working hard on that.
In closing, this was a big decision in the Flynn case, to-- to say the least. When history looks back on this decision, how do you think it will be written? What will it say about your decision making?
Well, history is written by the winner. So it largely depends on who's writing the history. But I think a fair history would say that it was a good decision because it upheld the rule of law. It helped, it upheld the standards of the Department of Justice, and it undid what was an injustice.
I mean, it's not gonna be the end of it.
What do you mean, it's not the end of it?
Well, I said we're gonna get to the bottom of what happened.
And later this year, do you expect a report from U.S. Attorney John Durham? Or do you expect indictments?
Well, as you know, I'm not gonna predict the outcome. But I said that we're certainly — there probably will be a report as a byproduct of his work. But we also are seeing if there are people who violated the law and should be brought to justice. And that's what we have our eye on.
And that would include individuals involved in the Flynn case?
I don't wanna get into particular individuals.
Attorney General William Barr, thank you very much for joining us here at CBS News.
Correction: This transcript has been updated to accurately reflect one of William Barr's responses regarding whether Michael Flynn lied to investigators. Barr in two instances referred to a "close" question, not a "closed" question.
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