Attorney General Bill Barr has been personally urging foreign governments to cooperate with an investigation into the origins of the FBI’s Russia probe during trips abroad — and President Donald Trump himself asked the prime minister of Australia to help Barr out, several news outlets reported Monday.
Though this is being breathlessly mentioned in the same context as Trump’s request that the Ukrainian president investigate Joe Biden, it’s a somewhat different situation, one that raises its own concerns about whether Barr is politicizing the Justice Department to serve Trump’s electoral needs.
What Trump is talking about here is a probe from US Attorney John Durham into the origins of the Russia interference investigation. The scope and the nature of Durham’s probe aren’t entirely clear, but Trump supporters have high hopes that this investigation will reveal some sort of malfeasance that will vindicate the president’s claims that he was the victim of a “witch hunt.” Trump himself has been calling for such a probe for years, and Barr launched it earlier this year.
Now, the Washington Post’s Devlin Barrett, Shane Harris, and Matt Zapotosky reported Monday that Barr has been personally involved in meeting foreign intelligence officials to try to get their help with Durham’s probe. This involved a trip to Italy just last week, as well as a previous trip there, and requests to both British and Australian officials.
The New York Times’ Mark Mazzetti and Katie Benner, meanwhile, reported that Trump recently “pushed” Australia’s prime minister to help Barr with Durham’s investigation. Trump did so at Barr’s request, they report. And the AP reports that Trump has made other introductory phone calls for Barr in relation to the Durham probe.
So unlike the Ukraine scandal that launched House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry, this isn’t a free-range effort to get a foreign government to provide dirt on one of Trump’s 2020 opponents.
But it is an investigation with political implications, one that the president and his attorney general have taken a keen interest in. And Trump’s requests may well have been perceived by these foreign officials as requests for “favors,” as with the Zelensky call.
So to the extent that Trump and Barr’s demands have taken an inordinately high priority in American foreign policy, they may weigh on House Democrats’ minds going forward as they pursue their impeachment inquiry.
What we know about the Durham investigation
The background is that when President Trump was embroiled in special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russian interference investigation, he and his supporters frequently called for an investigation of, well, the investigation itself.
And just a few months after Barr was confirmed as Attorney General back in February, Barr tapped Durham, the US Attorney for Connecticut, to look into the origins of the probe.
What, precisely, Durham is looking into isn’t entirely clear. But more recently, the Justice Department has said that Durham is “exploring the extent to which a number of countries” played “a role in the counterintelligence investigation directed at the Trump campaign during the 2016 election,” according to a recent Justice Department statement.
Four particular countries have surfaced in news reports as being scrutinized by Durham: Australia, the United Kingdom, Italy, and Ukraine. (For three of those countries, Trump specifically said in public remarks in May that he hoped Barr would look into them.)
Australia’s import is clear. In May 2016, Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos met Australian diplomat Alexander Downer for drinks at a London bar. There, Papadopoulos reportedly told Downer that he knew that the Russians had dirt on Hillary Clinton. Two months later, after DNC emails hacked by Russia were posted by WikiLeaks, Downer tipped off the US government about what Papadopoulos had told him.
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