Prosecutor to examine Russia probe origins

Attorney General William Barr has appointed a U.S. attorney to examine the origins of the Russia investigation and determine if intelligence collection involving the Trump campaign was ‘lawful and appropriate,’ a person familiar with the matter told The Associated Press on Monday.

Barr appointed John Durham, the U.S. attorney in Connecticut, to conduct the inquiry, the person said. 

The person could not discuss the matter publicly and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity.

Durham’s appointment comes about a month after Barr told members of Congress he believed ‘spying did occur’ on the Trump campaign in 2016. 

He later said he didn’t mean anything pejorative and was gathering a team to look into the origins of the special counsel’s investigation.

Barr provided no details about what ‘spying’ may have taken place but appeared to be alluding to a surveillance warrant the FBI obtained on a former Trump associate, Carter Page, and the FBI’s use of an informant while the bureau was investigating former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos.

Trump and his supporters have seized on both to accuse the Justice Department and the FBI of unlawfully spying on his campaign.

‘I think spying on a political campaign is a big deal,’ Barr said. 

But he later backtracked to add: ‘I am not saying that improper surveillance occurred. I am saying that I am concerned about it and I’m looking into it.’ 

The attorney general’s statements set off a storm of criticism that he was using the terminology the president uses to rail against the Mueller probe. 

FBI Director Chris Wray said last Tuesday that he does not consider court-approved FBI surveillance to be ‘spying’ and said he has no evidence the FBI illegally monitored Trump’s campaign during the 2016 election.

His stance put him at odds with Barr. 

Asked by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat, if he would say the FBI is ‘spying’ when it investigates suspected terrorists and mobsters, Wray replied, ‘Well, that’s not the term I would use.’ 

The inquiry, which will focus on whether the government’s methods to collect intelligence relating to the Trump campaign were lawful and appropriate, is separate from an investigation by the Justice Department’s inspector general. 

The agency’s watchdog is also examining the Russia probe’s origins and Barr has said he expects the watchdog report to be done in May or June.

Congressional Republicans have also indicated they intend to examine how the investigation that shadowed Trump’s presidency for nearly two years began and whether there are any legal concerns.

The recently concluded investigation from Special Counsel Robert Mueller did not find a criminal conspiracy between the campaign and the Kremlin to tip the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.

Barr’s statements about ‘spying’ last month further inflamed Democrats already frustrated by the attorney general’s handling of the Mueller report, including his release of a four-page summary letter last month that they say paints the special counsel’s findings in an overly favorable way for the president.  

Democrats on Capitol Hill held Barr in contempt for refusing to hand over the unredacted version of the report.

The vote to level contempt charges, held in the House Judiciary Committee last week, was along partisan lines – 24 Democrats versus 16 Republican – and now goes before the full House chamber for a vote, where Democrats hold a 38-seat majority.

After the full House votes the issue is expected to end up in the courts.

‘We are now in a constitutional crisis,’ House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler said after the vote.

‘This was a very grave and momentous step we were forced to take today to move a contempt citation against the attorney general of the United States. We did not relish doing this but we have no choice,’ he added. 

Durham is a career prosecutor who was nominated for his post as U.S. attorney in Connecticut by Trump. 

He has previously investigated law enforcement corruption, the destruction of CIA videotapes and the Boston FBI office’s relationship with mobsters.

In nominating him, the White House said Durham and other nominees for U.S. attorney jobs share Trump’s vision for ‘making America safe again.’

Durham was unanimously confirmed by the Senate in 2018. 

At the time, Connecticut’s two Democratic senators, Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, called Durham a ‘fierce, fair prosecutor’ who knows how to try tough cases.

In addition to conducting the inquiry, Durham will continue to serve as the chief federal prosecutor in Connecticut.

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