The House Democrats’ impeachment investigation is getting all the press right now. But Attorney General William P. Barr’s investigation into the origin of the FBI’s 2016 probe of alleged ties between Russia and the Trump campaign could well prove more politically consequential.

News on Thursday that Barr’s investigation — headed by John Durham, the U.S. attorney from Connecticut — had become criminal in nature underscored this conclusion. Criminal investigations arise only when there is a suspicion supported by evidence that someone might have broken the law. These inquiries, unlike initial factual investigations, permit the issuance of subpoenas and the impaneling of a grand jury. Being able to compel the production of evidence is a powerful tool in uncovering the facts, as the man heading the Democrats’ impeachment efforts, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), knows.

Conservatives have long argued that the Obama administration used Clinton-campaign-financed opposition research — in the form of the Steele dossier — to improperly initiate the investigation and obtain Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, or FISA court, approval for wiretaps of Trump campaign officials. Barr’s investigation is meant to find out whether there is any truth to these allegations.

We don’t yet know the scope of Barr’s investigation, nor do we know what specific crime is being investigated. But if the reports that the investigation has moved into a criminal phase are true, then there could be more fire underneath that smoke than Democrats want to admit.

If so, Democrats face the prospect of an election year heavily influenced by regular news events that cannot help them. The Trump administration has, thus far, faced frequent news cycles dominated by investigations focused on alleged Trump wrongdoing — the Mueller and Schiff investigations. The Barr investigation would use the same powers and could produce the same results: indictments and news leaks that reveal a powerful tale of official, politically motivated corruption.

The impact of such revelations would be compounded by the likely failure of the effort to remove President Trump from office. The fact that 44 Republican senators backed a resolution on Thursday attacking the procedure House Democrats are using in their investigation underscores this point. If the resolution’s signatories already think the investigation is improper, they are also unlikely to vote to remove Trump. It means that impeachment will be out of the news when the Senate trial is concluded sometime early next year.

Barr’s investigation, on the other hand, has no set time limit. If he uncovers criminal acts, those revelations will unfold on an ongoing basis throughout 2020. Unless investigations of Trump pursued by state attorneys general, as well as the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York, yield fruit, the Barr investigation could be the only major legal story influencing the 2020 campaign. That cannot be good news for the Democrats.

Even the smallest indictments could prove to an already hyperpartisan Republican base that their leader was the one subjected to illegal and immoral use of public power. In the most serious scenario, Barr’s investigation could reveal political misuse of public power by Obama administration officials that would make Trump’s acts in the Ukraine look like child’s play.

Unlike the investigations by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and Schiff, Barr’s investigation does not produce the type of nonstop news coverage that dominates the public’s attention. The attorney general’s effort seems to be a serious legal endeavor rather than an attempt to use legal cover to do political damage. It means that if something does come of it, it will be delivered in well-researched, damning fashion and could result in detailed indictments that cannot be swept under the rug. They will also be followed by court hearings that keep the story in front of the public. We will then see whether Democrats can deal with the tables being turned on them.

We don’t yet know what will unfold. This could fizzle into nothing or result in a few indictments of minor figures who can be easily argued were rogue actors. But it may not, and that possibility should begin to be factored into Democratic strategy.

The truth is out there, and Barr is determined to find it. Democrats should be afraid.

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