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Justice Dept's investigation into investigators takes an unsettling turn

A US Department of Justice seal is displayed on a podium during a news conference on Dec. 11, 2012 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Ramin Talaie/Getty)
A US Department of Justice seal is displayed on a podium during a news conference on Dec. 11, 2012 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.

The fear has long been that if the politicization of the Justice Department reached genuinely scary levels, we might see Team Trump's "investigate the investigators" gambit incorporate some kind of criminal probe. That, evidently, is where we now find ourselves.

A probe by Attorney General William Barr into the origins of the Russia investigation has changed from an administrative review into a criminal investigation, a person familiar with the review confirmed to NBC News.The review is being conducted by Connecticut U.S. Attorney John Durham. The New York Times first reported Thursday that the administrative review has turned into a criminal investigation.... The Times reported that the change in status gives Durham the power to subpoena witness testimony and documents, to impanel a grand jury and to file criminal charges.

Late last night, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) issued a joint statement, noting that if the latest reporting is accurate, it raises "profound new concerns" about the degree to which Attorney General Bill Barr's Justice Department "has lost its independence and become a vehicle for President Trump's political revenge."

The congressional chairmen added, "If the Department of Justice may be used as a tool of political retribution or to help the president with a political narrative for the next election, the rule of law will suffer new and irreparable damage."

We start with a basic premise: Russia attacked our elections in 2016. That's what the U.S. intelligence community determined; it's what Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation concluded; and it was the unanimous conclusion of the investigation launched by the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Community.

From there we move to the next step: Donald Trump, the intended beneficiary of Russia's attack, finds the facts inconvenient, and prefers to believe there was an elaborate conspiracy to make it look like Russia was responsible. With this in mind, the president and his followers have gone after senior American law enforcement and intelligence officials who had the temerity to investigate Moscow's scheme and the question of Team Trump's possible involvement in it.

All of which brings us to the current step: Barr's Justice Department opening the door to possible criminal charges against the investigators.

It's one thing for the White House and its loyalists to publicly vilify American officials in the hopes of defending the scandal-plagued president's reputation. Along the same lines, it's not necessarily problematic for the administration to review the investigation's origins.

But Team Trump is going considerably further, firing prominent U.S. officials who did nothing wrong, taking steps to strip some officials of their security clearances, and now opening a criminal inquiry into the work of American law enforcement and intelligence professionals.

The Republican president has long hoped to turn the Justice Department into a political weapon, to be used against his perceived enemies. It's the stuff of banana republics, and there's reason to be concerned about it happening in the United States right now.

Postscript: For the sake of historical context, Rachel noted at the end of last night's show that Americans have lived through a scandal in which a U.S. attorney general was sent to prison for misusing the powers of the Justice Department, using federal law enforcement as part of a political scheme to benefit the president.