The US intelligence community assessment that Russian interference in the 2020 election favors President Donald Trump threatens to undercut his hopes that prosecutor John Durham will discredit the origins of the FBI’s Russia investigation into his 2016 campaign.
Trump and allies, including Attorney General William Barr, have questioned whether the Russians showed a preference for Trump in 2016. But the US intelligence assessment released last week makes clear the Russians are doubling down on their pro-Trump efforts to undermine Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign.
The shadow of election-year politics has added to the partisan circumstances surrounding the probe, which Barr at one time contemplated appointing Michael Mukasey, a former attorney general who works closely with Rudy Giuliani, the President’s personal lawyer, to lead. Pressure to try to deliver at least some findings before the November election is apparent to some witnesses who have sat for interviews with Durham’s investigators recently, people briefed on the interviews said.
The 2016 intelligence is among the issues being examined by Durham, the Connecticut-based federal prosecutor who is leading a broad inquiry into the Russia investigation.
It’s a probe that has become increasingly politicized, in part because Trump and allies have sought to build expectations that Durham could deliver last-minute surprise findings to boost the President before the election.
The President used a Fox Business interview Thursday to make clear that he wants an election assist from Durham and Barr, and that he would be disappointed if Barr can’t deliver.
“Bill Barr has a chance to be the greatest of all time,” Trump told host Maria Bartiromo. “But if he wants to be politically correct he’ll be just another guy.”
Trump’s comments came after Barr for the first time said it’s possible Durham’s work will continue past November, though Barr is pushing to release at least some conclusions before the presidential election.
“We’re all aware of the calendar and we’re not going to do anything for the purposes of affecting an election, but we are trying to get some things accomplished before the election,” Barr told conservative commentator Buck Sexton in an interview that aired Wednesday.
Before his appointment as attorney general, Barr had made clear his skepticism of the 2016 investigation of the Trump campaign. Even as he prepared to help close special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, Barr was exploring appointing a new investigator to scrutinize the origins of the probe, which he believed was without merit.
His first choice to appoint Mukasey to lead the probe, a move which hasn’t been previously reported, likely would have drawn even more political controversy than the probe already has generated. Mukasey and Giuliani are former law partners and in recent years have worked together to represent Turkish clients.
Mukasey, in a telephone interview, said he and Barr discussed the possibility early in Barr’s tenure last year. “There was agreement on all sides, that it was better to keep it inside the Justice Department,” Mukasey said.
Mukasey in 2018 published an opinion column in USA Today criticizing Mueller’s investigation, calling for it to be ended for “legal and political reasons.” The Justice Department declined to comment.
While Barr has regularly discussed what he said are disturbing findings by Durham, the prosecutor himself has said little about his investigation. It’s not even clear that Durham, who is known to work slowly, can complete all parts of a complex probe before the election, as the President’s supporters would like.
Barr, who initially said he anticipated Durham to finish his work this summer but has also mentioned an early fall timeline, discussed possible delays, including trying to negotiate with witnesses, during a Fox News interview aired Sunday.
“He’s meticulous and he is about gathering all the evidence,” Barr told conservative host Mark Levin. “I think people have to realize that in this process the witnesses have lawyers, sometimes they won’t talk to you, they slow it down sometimes, they will take the Fifth Amendment unless you give them immunity.”
Scope of the investigation
Aside from Barr, glimpses of the scope of the probe have emerged from witnesses who have been questioned.
Based on questions asked of witnesses, among the issues Durham is looking into is whether Obama administration officials, including former CIA Director John Brennan and James Clapper, former director of national intelligence, cooked the intelligence to damage the then-incoming president.
Trump has long dismissed US intelligence on the Russians efforts to help him, in part because it implicates the legitimacy of his 2016 victory, former administration officials have said.
Barr, in House testimony last month, said the premise of the 2016 FBI investigation into the Trump campaign was “bogus.” In Fox News interviews he regularly has described the investigation as “one of the greatest travesties in American history,” and accused the FBI of trying to “sabotage the presidency.”
Those views stand in contrast with a new assessment released last Friday.
William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, issued an assessment on efforts by Russia, China and Iran to meddle in the 2020 election. While the statement described a Chinese preference for Trump to lose reelection, it described an active Russian-linked disinformation campaign to damage Biden and boost Trump.
Whatever Durham finds on the intelligence work in the 2016 Russia probe, the current intelligence on 2020 bolsters the fact that the Russians see a benefit from a Trump second term, current and former US officials say.
Durham has also been examining other aspects of the FBI’s work in 2016 and 2017, including whether a former FBI attorney should be criminally charged for altering a document used in the preparation of a surveillance application filed with the foreign intelligence surveillance court. The FISA warrants targeting Carter Page, a former Trump campaign adviser, contained serious errors and false statements, an inspector general report found.
After some delays due to the Covid shutdowns of the courts, Durham and his team of investigators have picked up the pace of their work, according to people briefed on the investigation. Witnesses who have met with Durham have said there’s no discernible major target for prosecution in the probe.
In recent weeks, James Baker, former FBI general counsel during the Russia investigation, sat with Durham’s team for an interview and was quickly brought back for follow-up questions, according to a person briefed on the matter.
A grand jury in Washington’s federal court, which Durham was using as part of his investigation, also has resumed work, people familiar with the matter said.
Some key interviews appear to still be in the works. Brennan and Clapper haven’t met with Durham. A spokesman for Brennan said discussions for an interview have been ongoing and that one issue remains that Brennan requires access to his papers from his time at the CIA, which the Trump administration has blocked.
Barr in his Fox News interview this week said Durham’s work is also complicated by the sheer number of issues, including conspiracy theories, he has been asked to look into.
“There was a sprawling number of issues to be looked at here,” Barr told Levin, “and there were a lot of different conspiracy theories and part of our responsibility is to look at all of these things so we can assure people these various theories have been looked at.”