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Barr names Russia prosecutor Durham as special counsel, ensures probe continues under Biden

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 12/2/2020 Kevin Johnson and Kristine Phillips, USA TODAY
Nora Dannehy et al. posing for the camera: John Durham is looking into the origins of the FBI's investigation into Russian election interference. © Bob Child, AP John Durham is looking into the origins of the FBI's investigation into Russian election interference.

Attorney General William Barr appointed John Durham, the federal prosecutor overseeing an inquiry into the Russia investigation, as a Justice Department special counsel. The move ensures that the politically charged probe will continue into President-elect Joe Biden's administration.

Barr notified Congress on Tuesday that he made the appointment just before the November election to provide Connecticut U.S. Attorney Durham and his team "assurances that they could complete their work without regard to the outcome of the election."

President Donald Trump had pushed for the results of the probe to be made public during the campaign, but Barr told lawmakers Tuesday that the coronavirus pandemic had slowed the pace of the inquiry, preventing its expected completion in the summer.

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Durham's appointment protects the investigation because as special counsel, he can't be readily removed by the new administration. Only the attorney general can fire a special counsel, and specific reasons – including misconduct, dereliction of duty, incapacity and conflict of interest – must be made in writing. Unlike most Justice Department investigators, Durham will not be subjected to the day-to-day supervision of the agency, although the attorney general can request explanations regarding investigative or procedural steps. 

Tapped by Barr, Durham was tasked with reviewing the FBI's use of surveillance during the 2016 presidential campaign, as authorities sought to understand Russia's efforts to interfere in the election to boost Trump's candidacy.

The inquiry, however, had increasingly become part of Trump's 2020 campaign, with the president and his allies contending that the Obama administration-led FBI and Justice Department had sought to sabotage his candidacy.

Attorney General Barr: Justice Department finds no evidence of widespread election fraud

From the moment he announced the review in the spring of 2019, Barr fanned high expectations when he told lawmakers that he believed "spying did occur" on the Trump campaign and vowed to examine the "genesis and the conduct" of the FBI's investigation into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.

The attorney general also has been harshly critical of former Russia special counsel Robert Mueller, asserting that the former FBI director's work promoted an "utterly false" theory that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government.

"What happened to the president in the 2016 election and throughout the first two years of his presidency was abhorrent. It was a grave injustice and it was unprecedented in American history," Barr has said. "The Durham investigation is trying to get to the bottom of what happened. And it will determine whether there are federal laws broken. Those who broke the laws will be held to account."

Sen. Lindsay Graham – one of Trump's fiercest allies, whose Senate Judiciary Committee has been investigating the FBI's Russia investigation – said Durham "is the right man at the right time" to serve as special counsel.

"To restore credibility to the Department of Justice and FBI after this disgraceful episode, people have to be held accountable – either through criminal prosecution or administrative action," Graham, R-S.C., said.

Rep. Adam Schiff, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, accused Barr of further weaponizing the Justice Department by continuing a politically motivated inquiry long after he leaves office.

"Having politicized the Department of Justice from his first days in office, it is a fitting coda that Barr should seek to do so in his last," Schiff, D-Calif., said. 

a man wearing a suit and tie: Carter Page speaks in Moscow on July 8, 2016. © AP Carter Page speaks in Moscow on July 8, 2016.

The first charges brought by Durham were announced in August, when former FBI lawyer Kevin Clinesmith pleaded guilty to falsifying an email used to support the surveillance of Trump's former campaign aide Carter Page.

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Clinesmith, who worked at the FBI for four years, acknowledged altering an email in 2017 that investigators relied on to justify an application to wiretap Page, according to court records. The altered email indicated that Page was "not a source" for the Central Intelligence Agency. The original email from the CIA indicated otherwise. 

The former FBI lawyer's actions were first disclosed last year in a scathing report by the Justice Department's inspector general, who found that FBI's surveillance applications involving Page were riddled with errors. Trump and his Republican allies in Congress pounced on the inspector general's findings to cast the Russia investigation as an attempt by the Obama administration to undermine Trump. However, the inspector general's investigation found that the FBI was justified in launching the probe.

Wiretap errors: FBI says errors discovered in more than two-dozen wiretap applications were mostly minor

No vindication: Review of FBI's surveillance of Trump campaign aide doesn't 'vindicate anybody,' inspector general says

Barr had previously suggested that Durham's investigation would produce "significant" developments, and that he would not wait until after the election to reveal the findings.

Those expectations were highlighted in September when a top aide to Durham, Nora Dannehy, abruptly resigned from the Justice Department. The departure of Dannehy was first disclosed by The Hartford Courant, which reported that the prosecutor's colleagues said that Durham's team was being pressed for political considerations to complete its work before it was complete.

Durham's office confirmed Dannehy's resignation, but declined further comment.

The prosecutor's departure only animated Trump and other Republicans who repeatedly urged Barr to publish the findings of Durham's review before the 2020 election.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Barr names Russia prosecutor Durham as special counsel, ensures probe continues under Biden

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