Attorney General William Barr has appointed the prosecutor investigating the origins of the 2016 Russia probe as a special counsel, a move that insulates U.S. Attorney John Durham from facing a swift removal in the incoming Biden administration.
Barr appointed Durham, the U.S. attorney in Connecticut who has been investigating the origins of the Russia investigation since May 2019, as special counsel on Oct. 19, according to an order obtained by The Hill. Barr appointed Durham as special counsel under the same statute that governed Robert Mueller when he was tapped to serve as the special counsel overseeing the federal government’s Russia probe.
“Following consultation with Mr. Durham, I have determined that, in light of the extraordinary circumstances relating to these matters, the public interest warrants Mr. Durham continuing this investigation pursuant to the powers and independence afforded by the Special Counsel regulations,” the order states.
Barr notified the leaders of the House and Senate Judiciary committees of his decision in a letter sent Tuesday, a copy of which was also obtained by The Hill.
Barr wrote in the letter to the congressional leaders that he expected Durham to complete the investigation by the summer of 2020 but that “the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as additional information he uncovered, prevented him from doing so.” Barr said he waited to notify Congress of the move until more than a month later after “having previously determined that it was in the public interest to toll notification given the proximity to the presidential election.”
“I decided the best thing to do would be to appoint them under the same regulation that covered Bob Mueller, to provide Durham and his team some assurance that they’d be able to complete their work regardless of the outcome of the election,” Barr told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
Under this federal statute, only an attorney general can fire the special counsel, and they must provide a reason for the termination in writing that falls along the lines of misconduct, conflict of interest or dereliction of duty.
Mueller’s sprawling probe investigated both Russian efforts to interfere as well as allegations that the Trump campaign coordinated or conspired with Moscow during the heated presidential race. Mueller charged six Trump associates with various crimes in the course of the investigation but did not find sufficient evidence to accuse any Trump associates of coordinating or conspiring with Russia.
Durham is currently conducting a criminal probe that has significantly narrowed, Barr says. Now Durham is focusing his probe on the conduct of FBI agents involved in Crossfire Hurricane, the name for the original FBI investigation into the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russians, including officials who were involved in the probe prior to Mueller’s appointment.
The Russia investigation has also faced additional scrutiny after a watchdog at the Justice Department previously found a series of errors and omissions related to a surveillance warrant application for then-Trump campaign aide Carter Page.
The Oct. 19 order authorizes Durham to investigate “whether any federal official, employee, or any other person or entity violated the law in connection with the intelligence, counter-intelligence, or law-enforcement activities directed at the 2016 presidential campaigns, individuals associated with those campaigns, and individuals associated with the administration of President Donald J. Trump, including but not limited to Crossfire Hurricane and the investigation of Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller, III.”
The order also authorizes him to prosecute any federal crimes that arise from the investigation.
Barr noted to The Associated Press that he expects Durham will release a public report detailing his probe’s findings.
Reaction to Barr’s decision fell along party lines.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) criticized the move as an attempt “to continue a politically motivated investigation long after Barr leaves office.”
“As multiple investigations have found, the investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and their contacts with people associated with Donald Trump was properly predicated and free from political influence, something that can hardly be said of Barr’s leadership at the Department of Justice,” Schiff said in a statement.
House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said that the order “further erodes the credibility of the Justice Department under Attorney General Barr’s tenure.” Nadler also said it appeared to violate Justice Department regulations stipulating that a special counsel should be selected from outside government.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), meanwhile, commended the decision, saying people needed to be “held accountable” in order to restore credibility at the Justice Department.
“I have complete confidence that Mr. Durham is the right man at the right time to be appointed special counsel,” Graham said. “I hope his work product will help restore confidence in the Department of Justice and FBI after the debacle called Crossfire Hurricane.”