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Opinion Awful new details about the Durham probe demand a serious response

Special counsel John Durham arrives at a federal courthouse in Washington on May 16. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
5 min

Senate Democrats, prepare to investigate the investigations of the investigators.

If this sounds likely to be mind-numbingly complicated, well, yes, it is. But there’s only one way to tackle this difficulty: head-on.

The New York Times disclosed extraordinary new revelations this past week about prosecutor John Durham’s years-long quest to delegitimize the FBI investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. In 2019, this obsession of President Donald Trump was initiated by his attorney general, William P. Barr, but as the Times found, Durham’s effort was itself profoundly tainted.

Now, because Democrats have 51 Senate seats after gaining one in the midterm elections, they have subpoena power on Senate committees that were previously divided. That means the Judiciary Committee is in a position to investigate the Barr-Durham escapades.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the Judiciary Committee chair, is signaling such an intent. In an emailed statement, Durbin said that reports of Durham’s “abuses” are “outrageous,” and “one of many instances” in which Trump and Barr “weaponized the Justice Department.”

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Durbin added that his committee “will do its part and take a hard look at those repeated episodes, and the regulations and policies that enabled them, to ensure such abuses of power cannot happen again.”

That’s encouraging, but how far will this investigation go? The Times report finds that Barr relentlessly pushed Durham to substantiate Trump’s theory that the Russia investigation was a conspiracy by intelligence and law enforcement against him. But Durham’s effort petered out “without uncovering anything like the deep state plot” invented by Trump and Barr.

Worse, the Times also found bizarre irregularities. Durham relied on Russian intelligence memos to access emails of an adviser to financier George Soros, in hopes of finding evidence of improper collaboration between law enforcement and the Hillary Clinton campaign. It never materialized.

Jennifer Rubin: The real ‘weaponization’ of the Justice Department: Barr and Durham

That, plus Barr’s habit of publicly hinting that Durham was on the trail of major wrongdoing — unscrupulously serving Trump’s political interests — were strongly opposed internally by Durham’s top deputy, the Times reports. Similarly, Durham leaned on the department’s inspector general to change his 2019 conclusion that the Russia probe was not politically motivated.

“It certainly ought to be investigated,” Noah Bookbinder, president and CEO of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, told me. “The Senate is the place where that can happen.”

We also need to know how Attorney General Merrick Garland approached the situation and how much he knew about it. That could be very awkward for Democrats.

“How much of the material in the Times report was Garland aware of?” asks former FBI agent Peter Strzok. “It’s possible he didn’t know some of it. If he didn’t, why on earth not? And if he did, what on earth is going on?”

One would think the House GOP’s new “weaponizing of the federal government” committee would take an interest in all this. But we all know that’s not what this committee will be about, and this creates new obligations for Senate Democrats.

For years, a central project of MAGA Republicans has been to feed Trump’s mythology about the “deep state” being corrupt to its core. The Durham effort was central to that. But now that it’s gone belly-up, Republicans are seamlessly picking up where Durham left off. The House “weaponizing” of government committee will be the nexus of this, surely including efforts to harass and undermine law enforcement investigations into Trump that are ongoing and are producing real results.

In fairness, Republicans were right that serious irregularities beset parts of the Russia investigation, even if this didn’t undermine its underlying legitimacy. So, theoretically, it’s possible these new House GOP efforts will produce real “deep state” findings here and there.

But it’s already clear they will be pursuing the same phantoms Durham chased. Republicans are reportedly gearing up to “investigate” the FBI’s treatment of school board protests, which will feed a bogus right-wing conspiracy theory about the Justice Department targeting parents that forms another fictional underpinning of the idea that the “deep state” has been weaponized against conservatives.

In the din of noisy coverage that results from GOP efforts to manufacture invented instances of weaponized government, what happens if Senate Democrats do their own investigation? The main public impression could be that Washington is just an endless food fight, that all congressional probes are “political” and never truly revelatory.

That’s a legitimate problem. But as Crooked Media’s Brian Beutler argues, in the face of bad actors out to drown our politics in propaganda, the answer is to “alter the informational stew with new ingredients.”

This would entail showing that Trump and his allies really did weaponize the government to an extraordinary degree. But it would also mean demonstrating that good faith congressional probes that expose real — as opposed to fictional — abuses are actually possible.

Senate Democrats can’t cede the field to House Republicans here. As Bookbinder told me, “There does have to be an effort to show what real weaponizing looks like.”

It would be the ultimate perversity if the only examples of “weaponized government” that Congress examines in a high-profile way are ones that didn’t happen, rather than ones that did.