Inquiry into Russia probe carries political consequences

Inquiry into Russia probe carries political consequences
In this Jan. 15, 2019 photo, Attorney General nominee William Barr testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Source: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik/AP)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Attorney General William Barr says he doesn't expect a criminal inquiry into the origins of the Russia investigation to target former President Barack Obama or Joe Biden, the former vice president and President Donald Trump's Democratic opponent this summer.

But that doesn't mean the investigation, led by U.S. Attorney John Durham of Connecticut, doesn't carry its own political consequences. The inquiry could conclude this summer, meaning fresh revelations might be exploited by Trump in the heat of the election season to damage Biden or to attack the Obama administration.

Buoyed by the Justice Department's decision to dismiss the case against former national security adviser Michael Flynn and by the ongoing declassification of Russia-related material, Trump and his allies have looked to Durham's investigation as the last opportunity to hold accountable officials they say wronged the president. Former Obama administration officials, meanwhile, find themselves scrutinized for actions they took four years ago while investigating Russian election interference.

A look at where things stand:

WHAT EXACTLY IS THE INVESTIGATION ABOUT?

Durham is a veteran federal prosecutor with decades of Justice Department experience. He's investigated FBI corruption related to the handling of Boston mobster Whitey Bulger and later the CIA's harsh overseas interrogations of terror suspects.

He was named last year by Barr to investigate the origins of the Russia investigation.

Durham's investigation is one of multiple inquiries the department has undertaken in connection with the FBI's probe into potential coordination between Russia and the 2016 Trump campaign. Those include an internal review of the Justice Department's handling of the Flynn investigation, and an inspector general report that was issued last year.

Unlike those inquiries, which were focused on Justice Department employees, Durham's mandate is much broader, spanning the activities of the CIA and other agencies across government.

Durham has been scrutinizing the intelligence community's assessment that Russia interfered in the election on Trump's behalf and what information the government had when it reached that conclusion. Barr has said the inquiry is far broader than just the FBI's flawed applications to monitor a former Trump campaign adviser, and covers actions taken after the election, too.

WHAT IS ITS CURRENT STATUS?

Barr has hinted at a resolution as soon as this summer, though precisely when the investigation will end is an open question.

Over the course of months, Durham has conducted interviews and spoken with government figures in the U.S. and abroad, traveling last year with Barr to meet Italian government officials. In a pattern with unmistakable echoes of special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation, current and former officials have lined up a who's who of Washington attorneys to navigate them through the probe.

Though the work continues, it is unclear how much it has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic, which has restricted travel and complicated access to some government buildings.

WHAT HAS DURHAM SAID ABOUT THE INVESTIGATION?

Not much. But his one public statement — coming hours after Inspector General Michael Horowitz issued a report saying the Russia investigation was opened for a legitimate basis — was telling.

In the statement, released through the Justice Department, Durham said he disagreed with the inspector general about the investigation being properly predicated. Horowitz later acknowledged that Durham had disagreed with him that there was a sufficient basis to open a full investigation, which gives the FBI more intrusive tools than a preliminary one.

Barr has been public that the investigation is now criminal in nature while Trump and his allies, inside and outside the White House, frequently attack by name former officials who they see as deserving targets of Durham's scrutiny.

On Tuesday, White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany lambasted former CIA Director John Brennan, claiming he had falsely stated that a dossier of opposition information about Trump's ties to Russia was the “impetus" for the Russian investigation. That is incorrect — the investigation had been started without the dossier.

HOW MIGHT TRUMP USE THE DURHAM INVESTIGATION?

Trump and his supporters hope the investigation will uncover misconduct and support the president’s claims that the FBI’s Russia investigation was a “witch hunt.” Even after the Justice Department’s inspector general released a comprehensive report on the origins of the Russia investigation, Trump insisted Americans should be more interested in Durham’s probe.

Trump is likely to seize on any modicum of questionable activity during the FBI’s counterintelligence probe, which morphed into special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. Mueller concluded that the Russian government interfered in the 2016 election to help Trump, but his investigation didn’t find sufficient evidence to establish a criminal conspiracy between Trump’s campaign and Russia. Mueller also examined multiple possible instances of obstruction of justice and pointedly said he could not exonerate the president.

HOW WILL THE INVESTIGATION END?

Barr has mentioned that there could not only be a written report, similar to a document produced after Mueller's probe, but also criminal charges. But neither he nor Durham has said who could wind up charged, or if anyone will be.

One person known to have been referred to the Justice Department for potential investigation is a former FBI lawyer who was alleged by the inspector general to have altered an email related to a surveillance application for former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.

Barr said last week that despite calls by Trump and some of his supporters for Obama and Biden to be investigated, he did not expect either man to become targets of Durham's probe.

“Our concern over potential criminality," he said, “is focused on others.”

Though Justice Department policy cautions against overt investigative actions in the run-up to an election, Barr has said that policy would not apply here since Durham’s investigation isn’t targeting a candidate. That raises the possibility that a criminal charge, or significant development, could be revealed in the crucial weeks prior to the election.

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