As the impeachment inquiry by House Democrats gains momentum, Donald Trump’s attorney-general is running his own investigation.
William Barr’s focus is not the president’s calls with Ukraine, but whether the now-completed justice department probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election was the product of a conspiracy against Mr Trump that included US allies.
This investigation of the investigators has come into focus in recent weeks as Mr Trump and Mr Barr have dragged allies such as the UK, Australia, Italy and Ukraine into old battles, just as a new war over impeachment has commenced.
“I was investigated. And they think it could have been by UK. They think it could have been by Australia. They think it could have been by Italy,” Mr Trump said this month.
Though Mr Barr has appointed John Durham, the US attorney in Connecticut and a widely respected prosecutor, to lead the justice department’s review of the Russia probe, both he and Mr Trump have courted controversy by getting directly involved.
Mr Trump pressed Ukraine’s leader, Volodymr Zelensky, to assist his attorney-general, suggesting the Russia investigation may have originated in Ukraine. The US president made the request on the same July 25 call where he pushed for a probe into debunked allegations against former vice-president Joe Biden, a frontrunner in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.
The US president made a similar request to Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, while Mr Barr has taken the unusual step of travelling to the UK and Italy as part of the review, employing a more hands-on approach than is typical for America’s most senior law enforcement official.
The efforts have cheered the president’s allies, who have long argued that the real scandal of the 2016 election was the behaviour of officials at the justice department and the FBI, which is part of the department.
“The American people deserve to know how the false “Russia collusion” accusation started,” said Jim Jordan, the ranking Republican on the House oversight committee. “That’s exactly what Mr Durham is doing with his professional and thorough investigation. He’ll find out exactly what happened and hold the right people accountable.”
But the review has also stirred controversy overseas and sparked claims that Mr Trump is using US institutions for his own political benefit.
“This is an investigation that has attributes of a political purge aimed at creating a counterfactual narrative to undermine, for political reasons, the legitimacy of a counter-intelligence investigation,” said David Laufman, a partner at Wiggin and Dana who helped oversee the early stages of the Russia investigation at the justice department.
Mr Durham has conducted his work with little fanfare since his appointment in May by Mr Barr, who has claimed the FBI spied on the Trump campaign. “Spying did occur. The question is whether it was adequately predicated,” he told Congress in April.
The justice department this month said Mr Durham was “exploring the extent to which a number of countries, including Ukraine, played a role in the counter-intelligence investigation directed at the Trump campaign during the 2016 election”.
A justice department spokeswoman declined to detail what specific conduct Mr Durham is examining, but the broad outlines were apparent in an October 2 letter sent by Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator and close ally of Mr Trump, to the prime ministers of the UK, Italy and Australia.
He pointed to Christopher Steele, the former British intelligence agent who passed a controversial dossier to the FBI alleging a conspiracy between Russia and Mr Trump. Mr Steele was hired by a research firm working for the Clinton campaign.
The letter also referenced Joseph Mifsud, a Maltese professor who in March 2016 met a Trump campaign adviser in Rome and told him Russia had Hillary Clinton’s emails. This was before the rest of the world knew. The adviser, George Papadopoulous, was later convicted of lying to federal prosecutors about his interactions with Mr Mifsud.
Mr Mifsud had links to Russia, according to US prosecutors, but Mr Papadopoulous has claimed that he was “an Italian operative handled by the CIA”.
Matteo Renzi, who was Italian prime minister in 2016, has blasted the idea of a conspiracy involving the Italian state. “It is clear this hypothesis is not a spy story but a farce,” he said.
Mr Graham also noted the role of Alexander Downer, a former Australian diplomat in the UK who was told by Mr Papadopoulous that Russia had indicated to the Trump campaign that it could help by releasing Mrs Clinton’s emails.
Mr Downer told US officials about Mr Papadopoulous’ comments and soon after the FBI opened its counter-intelligence investigation. “I had a conversation with this guy and I passed on one element of the conversation to the Americans. There’s just nothing more to it,” Mr Downer told Australian media.
The senator claimed Mr Downer had been “directed” to contact Mr Papadopoulous and to relay any information to the FBI. “We reject your characterisation of his role,” the Australian ambassador to the US, Joe Hockey, said in a letter.
Another element of the narrative concerns Ukraine, where officials in 2016 released information about Paul Manafort, then Mr Trump’s campaign chairman, that forced his resignation. The information concerned his lobbying activities in Ukraine. Manafort is currently serving seven and a half years in jail for crimes linked to that work.
In his call with Mr Zelensky, Mr Trump posited other, more vague claims, saying the US Democratic National Committee computer server hacked by the Russians could be in Ukraine and suggesting the country was in some way linked to the origins of the Russia probe.
“That whole nonsense ended with a very poor performance by a man named Robert Mueller,” Mr Trump said, referring to the special counsel’s appearance before Congress the previous day, “but they say a lot of it started with Ukraine”.
The justice department spokeswoman said: “Certain Ukrainians who are not members of the government have volunteered information to Mr Durham, which he is evaluating.”
Mr Durham’s review is playing out in parallel to an investigation by the justice department’s inspector-general, who has been looking into the use of foreign intelligence wiretaps in the Russia investigation. A report is expected to be released in the coming weeks.
Mr Mueller’s special counsel investigation, the US intelligence community and bipartisan congressional probes have all concluded that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, though no conspiracy between Mr Trump and the Russian government was ever established.
Most recently, the Republican-led Senate intelligence committee released the findings of its investigation and said Russia had meddled to support Mr Trump’s campaign.
Additional reporting by Miles Johnson in Rome and Jamie Smyth in Sydney
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