Over the course of his scandalous tenure as the nation’s attorney general, Bill Barr effectively positioned himself and the Justice Department as an extension of Donald Trump’s political operation. That changed, however, as the Republican lawyer made the transition back to private life.
In fact, as the Trump era came to an ignominious end, Barr seemed eager to rehabilitate his image, denouncing Trump’s anti-election efforts and cooperating with the Jan. 6 committee’s investigation. It seemed as if the former attorney general wanted to be seen not as a pitiful lackey of a failed former president, but as a credible law enforcement leader with some semblance of integrity. This public relations campaign was aided, in a way, by Trump himself, who began routinely and publicly condemning Barr.
Part of the problem with the effort is that Barr’s record of abuses chased after him like cans tied to a bumper. Another part of the problem is that the former attorney general, even now, continues to lie to the public about key factual details.
But perhaps most important of all is the fact that we’re still learning more about the extent to which the Republican lawyer corrupted his office. The New York Times published a stunning report on John Durham, his investigation into the Russia scandal investigation, and Barr’s brazen attempts to pull the prosecutor’s strings.
Interviews by The Times with more than a dozen current and former officials have revealed an array of previously unreported episodes that show how the Durham inquiry became roiled by internal dissent and ethical disputes as it went unsuccessfully down one path after another even as Mr. Trump and Mr. Barr promoted a misleading narrative of its progress.
For those who might benefit from a refresher — you’d be forgiven for thinking, “John Durham’s name sounds familiar, but I can’t remember why I’m supposed to care about him” — let’s revisit our earlier coverage and explain how we arrived at this point.
The original investigation into Trump’s Russia scandal, led by then-special counsel Robert Mueller, led to a series of striking findings: The former president’s political operation in 2016 sought, embraced, capitalized on, and lied about Russian assistance — and then took steps to obstruct the investigation into the foreign interference.
The Trump White House wasn’t pleased with the conclusions, but the Justice Department’s inspector general conducted a lengthy probe of the Mueller investigation, and not surprisingly, the IG’s office found nothing improper.
This, of course, only outraged Trump further, so Barr directed Durham, a federal prosecutor to conduct his own investigation into the investigation. That was more than three years ago.
At this point, Durham’s investigation into the Russia scandal investigation has lasted longer than Mueller’s original probe of the Russia scandal. Indeed, as of this morning, is still ongoing.
On the surface, what matters most is the conclusion: Barr told Durham to prove that the investigation into the Russia scandal was an outrageous abuse. We now know that this aspect of the endeavor was a spectacular failure: Durham apparently found no such evidence, and his prosecutorial efforts were an embarrassing debacle.
Trump predicted that Durham would uncover "the crime of the century." We now know better.
But just below the surface, the details uncovered by the Times paint an even uglier portrait. Instead of allowing the U.S. attorney to conduct an independent probe, Barr effectively oversaw the details of Durham’s probe, as the two met in the attorney general’s office “for at times weekly updates and consultations about his day-to-day work.”
The same article uncovered a series of related and dramatic revelations — too many to reference here — including Durham pressuring the Justice Department’s inspector general, Barr pressuring Durham to release an anti-Clinton memo ahead of Election Day, and internal dissent among members of Durham’s team about the integrity of the investigation, including the resignation of the prosecutor’s top aide.
There was also this amazing tidbit of information:
Mr. Durham used Russian intelligence memos — suspected by other U.S. officials of containing disinformation — to gain access to emails of an aide to George Soros, the financier and philanthropist who is a favorite target of the American right and Russian state media. Mr. Durham used grand jury powers to keep pursuing the emails even after a judge twice rejected his request for access to them. The emails yielded no evidence that Mr. Durham has cited in any case he pursued.
The Times also noted that Durham was ultimately forced to investigate suspected criminal wrongdoing from Trump — a detail that was hidden from the public — which we’ll explore in more detail a little later this morning.
But reading this amazing reporting, I found myself thinking, not of Main Justice, but of Capitol Hill. Among the first priorities of the new House Republican majority was the creation of a special committee that would investigate the political “weaponization” of the federal government.
The point, of course, was to create a panel to pursue assorted GOP conspiracy theories, many of which have been directed at incumbent Attorney General Merrick Garland, who has drawn Republicans’ ire for reasons that really don’t make any sense.
But the irony matters: If the new committee is looking for a real example of partisans using the levers of federal power as “weapons” against their political foes, Chairman Jim Jordan and his cohorts should start with Durham, Barr and one of the most obvious Justice Department abuses of the post-Watergate era.
For years, Team Trump has insisted that the Russia scandal was pointless but the Durham investigation was real. It now appears the GOP had it backward: The Russia scandal was real, and the Durham investigation was a fiasco.