Washington — Attorney General William Barr’s decision to select John Durham, the U.S. attorney in Connecticut, for the task of examining the origins of the Russia investigation should not come as a big surprise – Durham was already investigating FBI media leaks in the probe of Moscow’s involvement in U.S. elections.
But Barr’s decision to have Durham “investigate the investigators” has thrust Connecticut’s U.S. attorney deeper into a political firestorm.
President Donald Trump and his Republican allies have long called for an investigation of the president’s perceived political enemies and the surveillance of Trump associates. But law enforcement officials, especially at the FBI, insist the surveillance was lawful, while Democrats say the administration is trying to invalidate the findings of special counsel Robert Mueller.
“It certainly is a potential ‘high-risk, low-reward’ job,” said Bill Nettles, former U.S. attorney for South Carolina, of Durham’s new appointment. “This whole issue has become highly partisan and that’s always treacherous waters.”
Nettles said it would be difficult for Durham to turn down Barr’s request he lead the investigation.
“If the attorney general asks you to do something, you do it,” Nettles said. “You either do it or you quit.”
Durham has remained mum on his work for the Trump administration.
“We’re not confirming, denying, or commenting at all on this,” said Durham spokesman Thomas Carson.
But in January, a letter from House Republicans seeking more information about his findings revealed Durham had been investigating members of the FBI, especially former FBI general counsel James Baker, who has been accused of leaking information in 2016 to a Mother Jones reporter about the existence of a disputed “Steele Dossier,” alleging ties between Trump and the Kremlin.
Mother Jones broke the story about the dossier, a series of memos compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele on supposed contacts between Russian officials and members of the Trump campaign.
Steele was hired by the research firm Fusion GPS, which had also worked for a firm representing Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee, so the president and his Republican allies called it a “fake dossier” that was politically motivated.
Trump and his GOP allies also assert the dossier was the genesis of Mueller’s Russia probe.
Mueller was appointed after Trump fired former FBI Director James Comey. His report, following an 18-month investigation, reaffirmed the FBI based its probe of the Trump campaign on legitimate factors, including revelations that a Trump campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos, told a foreign diplomat he was informed that the Russians had stolen Democratic emails.
Nevertheless, according to a source familiar with the issue, Barr recently assigned Durham to examine the origins of the Russia investigation and determine if intelligence collection involving the Trump campaign was “lawful and appropriate.”
Barr has told members of Congress he believes “spying did occur” on the Trump campaign in 2016.
And on Tuesday, Trump told reporters he “didn’t understand” FBI Director Christopher Wray’s “ridiculous” answer that the FBI didn’t spy when looking into then-candidate Trump’s ties to Russia during the 2016 election.
During testimony before a Senate appropriations subcommittee, Wray said “spying” is “not the term I would use.”
“I believe that the FBI is engaged in investigative activity, and part of investigative activity includes surveillance,” Wray said.
Durham, who was appointed U.S. attorney by Trump, has a long and impressive resume and has been tasked by both Democratic and Republican administration’s to handle sensitive investigations.
Durham has served in the U.S. attorney’s office since 1989, holding a number of positions, including acting U.S. attorney.
Before that, he served on the Justice Department’s Boston Strike Force on Organized Crime, where he led the prosecutions of several mob bosses, including James “Whitey” Bulger.
In 2009, he was tapped by Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate alleged torture and killing of terror suspects by CIA interrogators and contractors.
After a three-year investigation, Durham decided not to bring criminal charges against those involved.
Durham also helped prosecute former Republican Connecticut Gov. John Rowland, who was charged with accepting $107,000 in gifts from people doing business with the state, and not paying taxes.
Richard Rossman, executive director of the National Association of Former U.S. Attorneys, said Durham “has been well regarded over the years,” and “appointed to investigate very sensitive investigations” by both Republican and Democratic administrations.
“Generally, he’s got a fine reputation,” said Rossman, a former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan.
Barbara McQuade, also a former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, said Durham’s investigation of FBI corruption in the Whitey Bulger case earned him a “very good reputation,” that may have appealed to Barr.
Some Republicans, however, wanted the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel, who would have broader powers and more independence, to investigate the origins of the Russia probe.