The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Justice Department follows Trump’s order to chase insane conspiracy theory

(Reuters/Carlos Barria)

Throughout the Russia scandal, President Trump and his allies have attempted to distract from the actual facts by insisting that the real scandal is that there was ever an investigation at all. Among their most bizarre claims has been that we need to get to the bottom of how the investigation began, as though it was some kind of deeply hidden mystery when, in fact, it’s been well understood for a year and a half.

But in the Trump administration, any ridiculous claim emanating from the Oval Office must be translated into official action, and now that we have an attorney general eager to indulge and validate the president’s most corrupt impulses, that’s exactly what’s happening. The Post reports:

Attorney General William P. Barr has tapped John H. Durham, the U.S. attorney for the District of Connecticut, to investigate the origins of the special counsel’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Barr picked Durham in recent weeks to work on the review, which is designed to ensure the U.S. government’s “intelligence collection activities” related to the Trump campaign were “lawful and appropriate,” a person familiar with the decision said.

What’s so absurd about this is that we know exactly what the origins of the investigation were. It began when Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos (one of multiple Trump associates who would later plead guilty to crimes) bragged to an Australian diplomat during a night of drinking that Russia had damaging information on Hillary Clinton that was being passed to the Trump campaign, and Australian officials then notified the FBI.

By all accounts, the investigators proceeded with unusual care, deeply concerned about what Russia was doing, but just as deeply concerned that their investigation might affect the outcome of the election if its existence became public. Which is why they successfully kept it secret until after the election was over, a fact that is utterly incompatible with the Republicans’ theory that there was a sinister conspiracy within the Justice Department that was bent on destroying Donald Trump.

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What quickly became apparent in that investigation was that not only was Russia mounting a comprehensive effort to help Trump get elected, there was a very strong possibility that the Trump campaign was cooperating with the Russians in some form. During the campaign, there were anywhere between 100 and 250 contacts between Trump campaign figures and people associated with Russia. The Trump officials making those contacts included his son, his son-in-law, his campaign chairman, his personal lawyer, his future national security adviser, and his future attorney general, among others.

We can argue about how you might define “collusion” and whether what happened constituted a conspiracy. But from the standpoint of counterintelligence investigators looking for a fire, there was smoke billowing from every window in Trump Tower.

Which brings us to something we have to stop and emphasize, because it’s so illogical and even bizarre that your brain might reject it outright — despite the fact that it’s staring you in the face.

The Republican position on the Russia scandal is that there should never have been an investigation in the first place. This seems almost too insane to believe, but it’s true.

Republicans actually want to claim that when the FBI first got hints of what was going on, their response should have been not “This is something we should check out,” but rather, “Eh, that doesn’t seem like any big deal. No need to look into it.”

This is still their position, even given everything we’ve learned since — all the details about the Kremlin’s effort to help Trump; the eagerness of Trump, his family, and his campaign to get help from Russia; and all the convictions and guilty pleas of Trump associates.

So now, even after the copious misdeeds documented in the Mueller report, Republicans still cling to the idea that there should never have been any investigation, and the very fact that the investigation began is evidence of malfeasance in the FBI.

For the record, I have no reason to believe that Durham is a partisan hack, as is the attorney general who tasked him to lead this new inquiry. But I can offer a prediction about how this is going to go.

Durham will find that the investigation was completely justified and carried out in accordance with counterintelligence practice. He may, however, find a few instances of minor sloppiness as you would in any investigation, with some agent somewhere forgetting to fill out his 27B/6 form in triplicate.

Barr will then repeat the strategy that worked so effectively with the Mueller report, holding a news conference before anyone has seen the actual results, during which he will say that serious misconduct was uncovered. Trump will then triumphantly proclaim that it has been proven that he was the victim of a Fake News Hoax Witch Hunt, a claim that will be echoed loudly on Fox News and conservative talk radio.

In the end, this investigation of the investigation will be added to the pile of documents and conspiracy theories that Trump and his defenders believe prove his innocence but do nothing of the sort (perhaps they can file it next to the [Devin] Nunes memo). But what should really disturb us is the fact that the Justice Department has basically become a servant of the most corrupt and dishonest president in living memory. Who knows what he’s going to order it to do next?

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