Former Attorney General Bill Barr on Wednesday heaped praise on special counsel John Durham for boosting former President Donald Trump's "Russiagate" narrative even though his three-year investigation has been dismissed as an epic failure by legal experts.
Durham, the former U.S. attorney for Connecticut, was first assigned to investigate the origins of the FBI investigation into Trump's ties to Russia in 2019 and was later appointed as a special counsel by Barr in 2020, ensuring the probe would continue after Trump left office.
Durham in September 2021 indicted former Clinton campaign lawyer Michael Sussman, alleging he lied to the FBI about his ties to the campaign while discussing his suspicions about Trump's ties to Russia with former FBI general counsel James Baker. Sussman's attorney argued that the charge was a "circus full of slideshows" as Durham used the proceedings to stoke Trumpworld conspiracy theories. A jury acquitted Sussman on Tuesday in a major blow to the investigation, which Trump and his allies had hyped for years.
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Fox News host Jesse Watters on Wednesday pressed Barr on whether he felt "responsible" or "disappointed" for how the Durham situation unfolded.
Barr said he was responsible for his appointment but stressed he was "very proud" of the investigation.
"I think he and his team did an exceptionally able job, both digging out very important facts and presenting a compelling case to the jury," he said.
Barr acknowledged that Durham "did not succeed in getting a conviction from the D.C. jury" but argued that he accomplished "something far more important": boosting Trump's narrative about the Justice Department probe into his Russia ties.
"I think he crystalized the central role played by the Hillary campaign in launching as a dirty trick the whole Russiagate collusion narrative and fanning the flames of it," Barr said. "Second, I think he exposed really dreadful behavior by the senior ranks of the FBI who knowingly used this information to start an investigation of Trump."
Barr's claims and Durham's probe are yet another attempt by Trump allies to make the former president out to be the victim of the Russia investigation, a narrative Trump has successfully pushed in some parts of the Republican Party. But the narrative ignores the fact that numerous Trump campaign officials and allies actively worked with or solicited help from Russians or Russian agents during his 2016 campaign.
Along with Russia's hack of the Democratic Party and a top Clinton campaign official, as well as its efforts to influence the election on social media, Trump's campaign operatives were repeatedly targeted in Russian efforts.
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"People like Paul Manafort, his campaign manager and consultant to Russia-linked actors; and like Carter Page, a foreign policy adviser who had previously been identified as a target for Russian intelligence efforts and who traveled to Moscow in early July 2016; and like George Papadopoulos, another adviser who had been told by a guy who was helping him set up a meeting between Trump and Russia's president that Russia had some of Clinton's emails," The Washington Post's Philip Bump explained. "That Russia had hacked the Democrats was known by mid-June 2016 and the Russia probe was opened by the end of July."
Legal experts slammed the Durham probe as "incredibly weak" and a "roaring waste of money and time."
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"The case wasn't a nothing-burger, but it was very thin, and it's hard to understand why it was brought other than to support Trump's allegation that the Clinton campaign falsely alleged a Trump-Russia connection," Stephen Gillers, a legal ethics professor at New York University, told The New York Times. "That motive is unacceptable. The government's only legitimate goal in bringing this case was conviction."
Conservative attorney George Conway, a prominent Trump critic, called on the Biden Justice Department to shut down the probe.
"I hope it's headed into the trash can. The Justice Department should put an end to this ridiculous investigation now. This case was a joke," he told MSNBC. "There was nothing here to begin with."
Barr's admission that it was more important for Durham to stoke Trump's narrative than get a conviction drew blowback from legal experts.
"Barr suggests that the value of Durham's case against Sussman was that it brought out evidence against the Clinton campaign," tweeted former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti. "Making evidence public is not a proper reason to charge someone with committing a crime. Sussman's life was turned upside down before he was acquitted."
Former FBI counterintelligence chief Peter Strzok, who was fired after being targeted by Trump for his involvement in special counsel Bob Mueller's probe even though he was cleared of any wrongdoing by the DOJ, also hit out at Barr on Twitter.
"Barr brazenly saying the quiet part out loud: Durham using criminal prosecutions to get out a false Russia narrative is 'far more important' than actually achieving convictions," he wrote.
Former Republican strategist Tim Miller called out Barr for arguing that "it doesn't matter they failed in an utterly frivolous prosecution because they succeeded in smearing the Clinton campaign."
"An insanely corrupt and politicized DOJ," he wrote, "right out in the open."