On Oct. 24, The New York Times reported that the Department of Justice raised U.S. Attorney General John Durham’s probe into the origins of the Mueller investigation to a criminal inquiry. What does all this mean? And why is this concerning for our democracy?
It all started in May, when Attorney General William Barr announced the District Attorney for Connecticut, John Durham, would be heading an investigation into the Trump-Russia probe. The move was quickly condemned by Democrats, who said the probe was being politically influenced by President Trump, according to NPR. While I’m all for investigators going where the evidence takes them and pursuing justice, there’s reason to suspect political pressure from Trump and Barr. In addition, the whole Durham investigation springs from conspiracy theories that have long been debunked.
Since the start of the Mueller investigation, Trump has been spreading conspiracy theories about it, claiming (among other things) that the Obama administration had spied on him. These comments were echoed by Barr, who said he believed spying occurred, according to USA Today. However, USA Today reported that the Trump-appointed FBI Director said he was unaware of any “spying.” This has not stopped Trump from upping the ante, claiming there’s a coup attempt against his presidency. But for all of Trump’s complaints on Twitter, Barr and his Department of Justice have admitted they could not come up with any evidence of spying.
Another claim Trump has long spread and which will likely be a topic in the Durham investigation is that the Mueller investigation was started based on the phony Steele Dossier, according to The New York Times. The Steele Dossier is a document funded largely by the law firm of Democratic National Committee and former presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign, which presented Trump and many of those around him as aiding Russia. While the Steele Dossier appears to be dubious, it’s irrelevant in this instance, as it was not the origin of the Mueller investigation. The real starting point was when Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos claimed to an Australian diplomat he knew Russia had information that would embarrass the campaign of former Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. However, right-wing media and Trump have continued to spread this lie, and there was even an attempt to prove this point by former House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes.
So, if we basically already know how the Mueller investigation started, and the claims against it are factually questionable, why are we having another investigation? I especially question this because there is already an inspector general investigation about the origins of the Trump-Russia investigation covering many of the same topics as the Durham probe. Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz says it is “nearing completion,” according to a letter obtained by CBS News.
At first, I thought the Durham inquiry was a mere formality, an administrative review meant to calm the president. However, the revelation that the Durham investigation is now a criminal investigation, with the power to empanel a grand jury and charge people with crimes, changes the stakes. Now it could turn into a tool used by a Department of Justice with a history of political decisions to go after Trump’s opponents.
To be clear, I would fully support an investigation if there was actually something to investigate. If there is reason to suspect something criminal about how the Mueller investigation started, the Justice Department should say as much to the American people and then continue investigating. But without new evidence, this Durham probe has the potential to turn into exactly the kind of “witch hunt” against Democrats that Trump claims has been perpetrated on him. Pay attention to the Durham probe; its findings could be crucial to our democracy.
Jason Zappulla is a UF history senior