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DOJ expands probe of Trump-Russia origins into criminal investigation

Attorney General William Barr testifies before a House subcommittee in his first appearance before lawmakers on Capitol Hill. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)
October 25, 2019

Months into a United States attorney’s administrative review of the origins of the Trump-Russia investigation, it has now turned into a criminal investigation.

John Durham, the Connecticut-based U.S. attorney appointed by Attorney General Bill Barr, may soon exercise broader investigative techniques such as subpoenaing witnesses, impaneling a grand jury and even filing criminal charges. The New York Times reported the latest development in the fallout of the 2016 presidential election Thursday, citing two anonymous sources familiar with the investigation.

President Donald Trump has, for years, criticized the work of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, having called his investigation of the 2016 election a “witch hunt.” Barr appeared to echo Trump’s concerns about Mueller’s investigation in April when he said the Trump administration was spied upon.

Barr appointed Durham in May to investigate whether the surveillance efforts used against the Trump campaign in 2016 were “lawful and appropriate.”

According to the Associated Press, both Durham and Barr traveled to Italy in September to inquire about Joseph Mifsud, an evasive Maltese professor whose contacts with 2016 Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos allegedly initiated concerns of a Trump campaign connection to the Russian government. Durham and Barr also met with British and Australian authorities who provided the intelligence tip the FBI used to initiate its investigation into allegations Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia.

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Durham’s probe has also sought interviews from former national intelligence director James Clapper, former CIA Director John Brennan and other CIA analysts who handled intelligence in 2016 relating to Russian election interference.

The New York Times reporting did not indicate when Durham’s review turned to a criminal investigation, or what specifically is being investigated for criminal wrongdoing, but the paper warned the move could lend to accusations Trump is “using the Justice Department to go after his perceived enemies.” That claim comes amid an existing impeachment inquiry in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, investigating whether the President unlawfully pressured the Ukrainian government to investigate Ukrainian involvement in the 2016 election.

The impeachment inquiry is also looking into claims Trump called the Ukrainians for an investigation of Joe Biden over allegations he pressured the firing of a prosecutor investigating a company for which his son Hunter Biden worked.

Despite the potential for concern about political targeting, the Times did note Durham as a respected and skilled federal prosecutor who has investigated CIA torture and taken down Mafia rings; a resume which could protect Barr from allegations he is simply pushing an investigation at the President’s bidding.

Durham’s investigation also appears to run parallel to Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s investigation of whether the FBI misled a surveillance court in order to win surveillance warrants against the Trump team. Horowitz does not have the same subpoena power or ability to file criminal charges as Durham now does in his criminal investigation.