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On multiple fronts, Trump's plan to exploit Justice Dept unravels

The embarrassing endpoint: Trump's corruption of federal law enforcement isn't producing any of the electoral gifts he sought.
Image: Donald Trump, William Barr
President Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr arrive to present the Medal of Valor and Heroic Commendations to officers and civilians who responded to mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Texas, in the East Room of the White House ion Sept. 9, 2019.Nicholas Kamm / AFP - Getty Images file

Donald Trump spent months trying to convince the public that there was a genuine controversy surrounding Obama-era "unmaskings," at one point describing it as a "massive" scandal. The president's political allies played along: Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) has been an aggressive proponent of the story, and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) went so far as to suggest earlier this year that the matter is "bigger than Watergate."

The rhetoric never really made any sense, and the latest reporting from the Washington Post indicates that the manufactured scandal has effectively evaporated into nothing.

The federal prosecutor appointed by Attorney General William P. Barr to review whether Obama-era officials improperly requested the identities of individuals whose names were redacted in intelligence documents has completed his work without finding any substantive wrongdoing, according to people familiar with the matter.

For those who might need a refresher, Barr's office announced on Fox News in May that the attorney general had appointed John Bash, the U.S. attorney in the Western District of Texas, to examine "unmasking" practices, specifically within the previous administration.

By any fair measure, it was a pointless exercise: In national security circles, "unmasking" is a routine development in which U.S. officials examine intelligence intercepts involving people abroad, and uncover the names of Americans who appear in those reports. All of this, of course, became more notable in the wake of the controversy surrounding former White House National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, a former foreign agent in communications with Russia before starting his stint in the West Wing.

There was literally no evidence of wrongdoing, but Barr -- and more specifically, the Trump White House -- was determined to create a pre-election controversy, even if that meant turning the Justice Department into an appendage of the president's re-election operation.

Sensible voices recognized this as nonsense. MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell explained in the spring that that there were 10,000 unmaskings last year, and 17,000 the year before that. She added, "Can people please stop trying to gaslight us?"

Now that John Bash's probe has apparently exonerated the Democratic administration, Trump might be tempted to turn his attention to Connecticut U.S. attorney John Durham's investigation into the Russia scandal probe, but that's not working out well for the president, either. Multiple reports this week have said there will be no pre-election action in the Durham probe, and Trump himself conceded at a campaign event on Monday that these efforts will have to wait until after Election Day.

Perhaps the president's recent declassification of materials related to the Russia scandal will bear political fruit? Apparently not: Politico reported yesterday that Justice Department attorneys conceded in court that Trump's recent tweet on the matter had literally no practical meaning.

It's worth emphasizing for context that the Republican incumbent has been quite explicit in recent months that he intended to use federal law enforcement to advance his political ambitions. Trump has repeatedly turned to conservative media outlets to publicly lobby the attorney general, pushing Barr to prosecute his political opponents ahead of the elections, even if that meant embracing authoritarian tactics in conflict with American traditions.

But as outrageous as it's been to see the president try to exploit the Justice Department to maintain his grip on power, we appear to have reached an embarrassing endpoint: Trump's corruption of federal law enforcement isn't producing any of the electoral gifts he sought.