Justice Department hasn’t interviewed key Russia probe witnesses

By Natasha Bertrand

For months, President Donald Trump’s allies have been raising expectations for prosecutor John Durham’s investigation into the origins of the Russia probe, predicting that he will uncover a deep state plot to stage a “coup” against the president.

Durham “is looking at putting people in jail,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham told Fox News host Sean Hannity in July. Republican Rep. Jim Jordan said Durham is about to unleash “a pile of evidence” that will “debunk” everything House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff has proclaimed for “the last two years.”

“Stuff is going to hit the fan” when Durham is done “investigating the investigators,” said Fox News personality Geraldo Rivera. “If indictments are warranted, U.S. Attorney John Durham will be bringing them,” wrote conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt.

But in the five months since Attorney General Bill Barr tapped Durham to investigate the origins of the Russia probe, and whether any inappropriate “spying” occurred on members of the Trump campaign, he has not requested interviews with any of the FBI or DOJ employees who were directly involved in, or knew about, the opening of the Russia investigation in 2016, according to people familiar with the matter.

The omission raises questions about what, exactly, Durham—alongside Attorney General Bill Barr—has been investigating.

Those not contacted include former FBI counterintelligence agent Peter Strzok; former FBI general counsel Jim Baker; former chief of the National Security Division’s Counterintelligence and Export Control Section David Laufman; and former head of DOJ’s National Security Division Mary McCord. Former CIA Director John Brennan, Trump-Russia dossier author Christopher Steele, and former Trump adviser Carter Page—who was the subject of a surveillance warrant that is now under investigation by the inspector general—haven’t been contacted for interviews, either.

Combined with reports that Barr has traveled with Durham internationally seeking evidence from the U.S.’s closest intelligence allies, Durham’s apparent lack of interest in the FBI at this point suggests that he and Barr are focusing on examining the intelligence community’s role in the Russia probe—and, in accordance with Trump’s desires, looking at whether the help provided by U.S. allies in the Russia probe, including the U.K., Italy, Australia and Ukraine, may itself have constituted foreign interference.

Former attorney general Michael Mukasey, whose son Marc represents the Trump Organization and is a longtime confidant of Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, recently speculated in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed that Durham may be trying to determine whether “Federal Bureau of Investigation tried to get evidence from Ukrainian government officials against Mr. Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, to pressure him into cooperating against Mr. Trump.” Mukasey also noted that, according to a recent Justice Department statement, “certain Ukrainians who are not members of the government have volunteered information to Mr. Durham, which he is evaluating.”

The new revelations about Barr and Durham’s work and travels also present the clearest contrast yet to the Justice Department’s internal investigation into the Russia probe origins, led by the DOJ’s inspector general and focused on the FBI’s conduct. That probe remains ongoing.

“The question Durham and Barr now seem to be asking is, ‘How was this information fed to the bureau in 2016?” said one former FBI official. “That’s distinct from what the IG has been looking at, and seems to indicate that their theory now is the FBI itself was duped by the intelligence community and its overseas partners.”

A tweet sent out by Republican Sen. John Cornyn on Friday suggested that the inquiry is also broader than has been reported. “Now, the Trump Justice Department is investigating foreign government influence, VP Biden conflicts of interest, and possible corruption,” he wrote, referring to Vice President Joe Biden. But a Cornyn aide said the senator meant to say "that the Durham investigation could end up also looking at the Bidens," not that it already was. The Justice Department declined to comment.

In his phone call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky on July 25—which Trump’s national security team delayed for months because they were wary of how Trump’s fixation with conspiracy theories surrounding the origins of the Russia investigation would be reflected in the call, according to former officials—Trump asked Zelensky to do him a “favor” by looking into Ukraine’s role in the 2016 election, and suggested he connect with Barr “to get to the bottom of it.”

Trump also asked the newly elected leader to investigate Biden and his son, who sat on the board of directors of an oil and gas company that at one point was investigated by Ukraine’s top prosecutor. Ukrainian officials on Friday announced a fresh review of why that probe was shut down.

The Justice Department has denied that Barr received any instructions from Trump to work with the Ukrainians on a Biden investigation. But Barr’s reported personal involvement in Durham’s probe suggests the attorney general has been more closely overseeing an inquiry of deep importance to the president than was previously believed.

Durham, for his part, appears to have trained his focus on the intelligence community, reportedly seeking interviews with the CIA analysts who drew conclusions about Putin’s motivations in 2016. Trump’s allies have been fixated on the question of how the intelligence community determined that Russia intervened specifically to help Trump win rather than to just sow chaos and distrust in the Democratic process. Some accounts have suggested that the intelligence community had a human asset in Putin’s inner circle, though others have indicated that the U.S. used signals intelligence to intercept conversations among Russian officials.

As POLITICO first reported, that question has already been asked and answered at the CIA’s highest levels — by Mike Pompeo, a Trump loyalist. Just after Pompeo took over as CIA director in 2017, he conducted a personal review of the CIA’s findings, grilling analysts on their conclusions in a challenging and at times combative interview, people familiar with the matter said. He ultimately found no evidence of any wrongdoing, or that the analysts had been under political pressure to produce their findings.

George Papadopoulos, another Trump campaign adviser who has repeatedly declared that the entire FBI investigation was a setup by Western intelligence services including the British, Australians, Italians and CIA, twice declined to comment when asked whether he’d been interviewed by the prosecutor.

Papadopoulos pleaded guilty in 2017 to lying to the FBI about his own contacts with a Russian-linked professor named Joseph Mifsud, who told Papadopoulos in the spring of 2016 that the Russians had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the form of thousands of her emails.

That disclosure, which was relayed to the FBI by an Australian diplomat who heard about it from Papadopoulos, is what the FBI has said spurred its initial counterintelligence investigation into Trump campaign associates with links to Russia. But Papadopoulos has claimed, without evidence, that Mifsud was actually a plant, sent by Western intelligence officials to entrap him and give the FBI an excuse to open an investigation.

Mifsud’s whereabouts remain unknown. But Barr reportedly asked Trump to solicit the Australians’ help in the investigation. And he and Durham recently traveled to Italy to investigate the events that led up to Mueller’s probe—and, as part of that, to reportedly hear a taped deposition Mifsud gave on the subject months ago.