“Investigate the investigators” is one of President Donald Trump’s favorite attack lines against the Russia probe into 2016 election interference.
And now at least one internal Justice Department review of the Russia investigation has morphed into a criminal inquiry. The New York Times reported late Thursday that John Durham, the prosecutor tapped by Attorney General Bill Barr to assess the Russia investigation, is pursuing a criminal inquiry, which will allow him to subpoena witnesses and convene a grand jury if necessary. Though what, exactly, that criminal inquiry is looking into remains unclear. The Washington Post also backed up this reporting on Thursday.
NBC News reported over the weekend that Barr had expanded the review, and that Durham is now interested in interviewing “a number of current and former intelligence officials involved in examining Russia’s effort to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, including former CIA director John Brennan and former director of national intelligence James Clapper.”
Justice Department officials told NBC News that Durham had found something “significant,” but did not specify what.
Durham’s review has been closely overseen by Barr, who’s long expressed skepticism about the origins of the Russia investigation that was later overseen by special counsel Robert Mueller.
In recent weeks, Barr has been globetrotting in an apparent effort to find proof of a conspiracy theory, pushed by Trump and some of his Republican allies, that the entire Russia inquiry started because of a plot by the Obama administration and/or Hillary Clinton to thwart Trump’s presidential campaign.
The expansion of the Justice Department review raises concerns that Barr is injecting politics into this inquiry and using the full weight of law enforcement to pursue right-wing talking points and discredit the special counsel’s probe — just as Trump is facing the threat of impeachment for pressuring Ukraine, including over the conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, hacked the Democratic National Committee in 2016.
Barr ordered this review of the Russia probe back in May, even though the Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz was already pursuing a similar inquiry. The IG has a lot of powers, including to subpoena documents and witnesses, but he can’t charge people with crimes or even discipline individuals — though he can make recommendations to prosecutors.
The inspector general’s investigation has been ongoing since March 2018. According to the New York Times, Horowitz told Congress Thursday that they are wrapping up that investigation, but the public has been hearing that the IG is a few weeks from releasing his report since the spring.
It’s not clear whether Horowitz might have made a criminal referral to the Justice Department, but if and when the report is released, it might offer some clues as to what Barr and Durham are looking at.
Horowitz told Congress in September that he had shared information with Durham. “I have had communications with him, but it’s really — they’re a separate entity that he’s working on at the direction of the attorney general,” Horowitz said. “I’m obviously independent.”
All of which is to say Barr’s “investigation into the investigators” is still really opaque and somewhat alarming because the details are so fuzzy.
Special counsel Robert Mueller did not find a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, but it made clear that the Trump campaign welcomed the Kremlin’s efforts.
It also documented Russia’s interference in the 2016 election to benefit Trump, including its online propaganda campaign and its hacking of the Democrats, which led to multiple indictments. The findings have been backed up by the intelligence community and a GOP-led Senate panel.
Russia is at it again (along with China and Iran), so this latest news obviously raises concerns that it might muddle the central findings of the Russia investigation ahead of the 2020 elections.
But just because the review now appears to be a criminal inquiry doesn’t necessarily mean there’s anything criminal to be found — or even if there is, that it will confirm the GOP’s talking points about the investigation. Still, Trump has long wanted to diminish the credibility of the Russia “witch hunt.” The question is whether the Justice Department is helping him do that.
What does this criminal investigation mean?
Barr tapped Durham in May to lead this other review of the Russia investigation. Though Barr picked Durham for the job, Barr has made it clear that he himself is also deeply involved — and deeply concerned about the origins of the Russia investigation and the actions the FBI took during the 2016 campaign.
“Government power was used to spy on American citizens,” Barr told the Wall Street Journal in May. “I can’t imagine any world where we wouldn’t take a look and make sure that was done properly.”
Barr’s “spying” reference is tangled up in a web of Republican conspiracy theories about the investigation and its origins in the summer of 2016. The first has to do with the so-called Steele dossier, a lengthy report compiled by former MI6 agent Christopher Steele. Steele’s dossier contained explosive allegations which the Mueller investigation didn’t bear out, so Republicans have been arguing that US intelligence inappropriately relied on this “phony” dossier.
That includes using the dossier in the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Act (FISA) warrant for Carter Page, a former Trump campaign aide with Russia contacts. Republicans believe that the FBI inappropriately relied on this information to surveil Page.
And finally, GOPers have cried foul about the use of confidential informants to talk to former Trump aide George Papadopoulos to find out what he knew about Russia’s efforts to hurt Hillary Clinton, after he spilled to an Australian diplomat that the Russians had political “dirt” on Clinton in the form of thousands of emails. The Australian diplomat tipped off US officials, which prompted the investigation in July 2016. (Yes, these are very complicated conspiracy theories, so if you need a more detailed refresher, read here and here.)
Horowitz, the inspector general, was already looking into these origins of the Russia investigation, which is why Barr’s decision to pursue his own probe was so unusual. And by all accounts, the attorney general has been personally involved, jet-setting to Italy (regarding a professor who met with Papadopoulos) and the UK (Christoper Steele) to get more information. They’ve also been talking to Australia. Oh, and Ukraine, because of a baseless conspiracy theory that Kyiv framed Russia for the hacking of the Democrats in 2016. (For more on the conspiracy world tour, read here.)
Foreign governments have rebuffed the US’s overtures so far. Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte dismissed the idea Italy had any involvement in the opening of the Russia investigation. Australia defended its diplomat and dismissed allegations that he had acted inappropriately. And Ukraine, well, that’s now its own separate mess.
NBC News and the New York Times also report that Durham wants to speak to current and former intelligence officials, though he has not interviewed high-level folks in the Obama administration, such as former CIA director John Brennan or director of national intelligence James R. Clapper. But, according to the Times, in Durham’s interviews with other officials, he asked whether the CIA officials “might have somehow tricked the FBI into opening the Russia investigation.”
New York Times also reported over the weekend that Durham was looking into former FBI officials involved in the case, interviewing nearly two dozen current and former officials. Durham, however, has not interviewed some key players, including former FBI director James Comey and former deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe, both frequent targets of Trump.
Durham is also reportedly looking into FBI agent Peter Strzok, who opened the investigation after getting a tip from the Australian diplomat. Strzok, of course, was removed from the case after anti-Trump text messages between him and Department of Justice lawyer Lisa Page emerged in the investigation.
All of this information is coming in bits and pieces, which means there are a lot of unknowns about what Barr and Durham are looking into with this review. The big question here is whether Barr and Durham are going into this clear-eyed or are specifically looking for information to fit the narrative that’s been pushed by the president about rogue Trump-haters at the FBI and CIA who conspired to cook up an investigation into a presidential candidate.
The Russia investigation was a sprawling inquiry, and it was also unprecedented. It is possible that intelligence or law enforcement officials made missteps or acted inappropriately along the way. That’s what the inspector general, the independent watchdog, was supposed to investigate.
But the deep involvement of Barr — who’s made it clear from the start that he’s fine protecting the president — rightfully raises concerns about whether politics are at play here. Trump is enduring an impeachment battle that grows more damning by the day — but it would be quite a win if the Russia investigation was diminished, too.
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