Earlier in the week, as promised, Attorney General Bill Barr assigned a US attorney to oversee the events and tactics that set into motion the lengthy and politically-explosive federal probe that was eventually inherited and concluded by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Barr has infuriated Democrats by stating that he was planning to do so, inflaming them further by using the word "spying" in reference to certain government surveillance of Trump campaign associates. But as even former DNI James Clapper has admitted, the Obama-era DOJ's actions met the "dictionary definition" of spying. In any case, we're learning that the current investigation of the previous investigation has already expanded.
Recall that the Justice Department's tough and respected Inspector General is on the brink of completing his look at potential FISA abuses, which is rumored to contain very critical assessments of the FBI's reliance on the infamous (and heavily discredited) Steele Dossier. How many people knew about Steele's serious credibility problems as they leaned so heavily on his work to obtain warrants? And was the fact that his dodgy (and possibly Russia-planted) opposition research was bought and paid for by Hillary Clinton and the DNC hidden or obscured from the judges who approved those warrants? These are important questions, but their scope only goes so far -- which is why Barr has moved to assign the job of rendering a more comprehensive account to someone else. And boy, does this process, still being presented as a "review," appear to be escalating:
Attorney General William Barr is working closely with the CIA to review the origins of the Russia investigation and surveillance issues surrounding Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, according to a source familiar with the matter, broadening an effort that the President has long demanded to involve all major national security agencies. Barr is working in close collaboration with CIA Director Gina Haspel, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and FBI Director Christopher Wray, the source said. There had been speculation as to why Haspel had been spotted at the Justice Department in recent weeks. Wray testified last week he was assisting Barr.
The CIA is in the mix? We've also learned that the probe has already been underway for some time:
And who is John Dunham, the man tasked with sorting all of this out?
John H. Durham, the United States attorney in Connecticut, has a history of serving as a special prosecutor investigating potential wrongdoing among national security officials, including the F.B.I.’s ties to a crime boss in Boston and accusations of C.I.A. abuses of detainees...Durham, who was nominated by Mr. Trump in 2017 and has been a Justice Department lawyer since 1982, has conducted special investigations under administrations of both parties. Attorney General Janet Reno asked Mr. Durham in 1999 to investigate the F.B.I.’s handling of a notorious informant: the organized crime leader James (Whitey) Bulger. In 2008, Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey assigned Mr. Durham to investigate the C.I.A.’s destruction of videotapes in 2005 showing the torture of terrorism suspects. A year later, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. expanded Mr. Durham’s mandate to also examine whether the agency broke any laws in its abuses of detainees in its custody.
As is the case with IG Horowitz, it's going to be awfully difficult for Democrats to charge that Mr. Dunham is a partisan hack. Note that Durham was most recently nominated by President Trump, but has been assigned to oversee special cases in this realm by three Attorneys General -- two of which were Democrats. Connecticut's two US Senators have praised him as "fierce" and "fair." Nevertheless, partisans in the media and on Capitol Hill are already trying to craft a preemptive narrative:
The unsubtle implication is that if Durham's findings are problematic for Democrats, or helpful to Trump, he'll trash his "apolitical" reputation and be transformed into a right-wing gargoyle -- just the latest career official whose "soul" was "eaten" by the president, or whatever. On that particularly nasty and personal slander, former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein (who was hailed by many as a brave public servant who stood up to the president up until the moment that he agreed with Barr's approach to concluding the Mueller probe) fired back at James Comey in a recent speech:
As this phase of this seemingly endless saga moves forward, two admonitions: First, conservatives should guard against the temptation to Muellerize Mr. Durham. So many Trump opponents invested so much in Mueller's work that they turned him into something of a superhero, upon whom they were counting to swoop in and save the day. He disappointed them on both collusion and obstruction, the latter of which we're still fighting about. Second, and relatedly, It's entirely possible -- if not probable -- that any malfeasance or corner-cutting discovered by Horowitz and Durham will fall well short of the "deep state" conspiracy that many Trump backers have convinced themselves took place. It's also entirely possible, if not probable, that several key components of the Russia probe's provenance were in fact rooted in rational, reasonable suspicions. Manage expectations (and read this old Jonathan Turley analysis that I believe helps explain a lot of what's happened over the past two years). I'll leave you with some comments from former Rep. Trey Gowdy that raised my eyebrows a little bit:
Remember, Gowdy had essentially told conservatives to calm down earlier in this whole process, assuring voters that the intelligence he had access to convinced him that the FBI had acted properly in deploying some human intelligence methods against Trump-linked sources. His two sets of comments aren't necessarily contradictory, but I'd love to see a deeper explanation of what Gowdy views as proper and lawful versus potentially abusive. Also, what are these emails he's talking about?