- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Attorney General William P. Barr on Tuesday announced that he elevated the attorney investigating the origins of the Russia collusion probe to a special prosecutor, ensuring that the investigation can’t easily be squashed by presumptive President-elect Joseph R. Biden.

U.S. Attorney John Durham, the prosecutor leading the investigating for more than a year, now has the same powers that special counsel Robert S. Mueller flexed for nearly two years pursuing accusations of Russian collusion against President Trump and his campaign that have since been debunked.

In a letter to congressional leaders, Mr. Barr said he had designated Mr. Durham as a special counsel in October but waited until now to make it public.

The announcement came on the heels of Mr. Barr telling The Associated Press that the Justice Department had not uncovered evidence of widespread voter fraud that would change the outcome of the 2020 presidential election, putting him on a collision course with Mr. Trump.

The new longevity for the Durham probe, however, likely pleased the president. For years, he decried the Russia collusion probe as a “hoax” and the “greatest political crime in American history.”

Mr. Biden served as vice president in the Obama administration when the FBI first targeted the Trump campaign and then his transition team in an operation codenamed Crossfire Hurricane. That puts Mr. Biden in the orbit of the Durham probe and would put his White House under the cloud of a special counsel investigation similar to what Mr. Trump endured.

The Biden transition team didn’t immediately comment on the appointment.

Mr. Barr’s move also puts Democrats and other Trump opponents in a tough spot. They spent much of the Trump presidency demanding protections for Mr. Mueller against presidential interference.

According to Justice Department regulations, only the attorney general can fire a special counsel, and there must be “good cause” to do so, such as specific misconduct. A political disagreement over the scope of the investigation isn’t sufficient.

And should a firing occur, the special counsel would have standing to challenge that move in court and demand to be reinstated, liberal legal experts argued.

Indeed, one of the potential obstruction of justice claims raised against Mr. Trump in his impeachment was his attempt to try to orchestrate Mr. Mueller’s ouster.

Mr. Barr said he attempted to avoid politicizing the special counsel. He stressed that the appointment of Mr. Durham as special counsel pre-dated the Nov. 3 election and was not tied to the election outcome.

“Although I had expected Mr. Durham to complete his work by the summer of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as additional information he uncovered, prevented him from doing so,” Mr. Barr wrote to the lawmakers. “In advance of the presidential election, I decided to appoint Mr. Durham as a Special Counsel to provide him and his team with the assurance that they could complete their work, without regard to the outcome of the election.”

The letter was sent to the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate judiciary committees.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said he concurred with the appointment and called on his Democratic colleagues to give Mr. Durham the same respect they afforded Mr. Mueller.

“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,” he said. “This important investigation must be allowed to proceed free from political interference. The American people deserve a full accounting of this wrongdoing.”

But Democratic leaders condemned Mr. Barr’s actions.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, New York Democrat, said the appointment damaged the credibility of Mr. Barr’s Justice Department.

He said Mr. Durham, the U.S. attorney for Connecticut, wasn’t eligible for the job because DOJ regulations stipulate a special counsel must be selected from outside the federal government.

“On its face, this appointment appears to violate the department’s own regulations — which stipulate, among other requirements, that ‘the special counsel shall be selected from outside the United States government.

“We should not lose sight of the larger picture: In the waning days of the Trump administration, the attorney general has once again used the powers of his office to settle old scores for the president,” Mr. Nadler said.

“This order is one more desperate attempt to feed President Trump’s fixation on events that have been investigated over and over again, including by the department’s independent inspector general. It is a distraction to divert attention from the president’s failure to contain the COVID-19 pandemic and his resounding defeat in the presidential election.”

The Russia probe grew out of accusations that the Trump 2016 presidential campaign conspired with the Kremlin’s efforts to defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Mr. Durham’s probe, which was already a criminal investigation, began very broadly but has narrowed in scope.

Mr. Barr said it now is mostly “focused on the activities of the Crossfire Hurricane investigation within the FBI,” Mr. Barr told The Associated Press.

He said he expects Mr. Durham would detail whether any additional prosecutions will be brought and make public a report of the investigation’s findings.

In an Oct. 19 order, obtained by The Washington Times, Mr. Barr said Mr. Durham is authorized “to investigate whether any federal official, employee or any person or entity violated the law in connection with the intelligence, counter-intelligence or law enforcement activities” directed at the 2016 presidential campaigns, anyone associated with the campaigns or the Trump administration.

• Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

• S.A. Miller can be reached at smiller@washingtontimes.com.

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