NYT source: Durham has evidence that challenges IG's conclusion that FBI had sufficient basis to launch Russiagate probe

I was worried that the upcoming IG report might finally settle the public debate over the DOJ’s Russia investigation. Glad to see that this clusterfark looks like it’ll not only continue but possibly intensify, with top lawyers at the Department at each other’s throats over whether to side with inspector general Michael Horowitz or prosecutor John Durham.

Let’s back up. WaPo published a bombshell story last night claiming that Bill Barr has reviewed the draft of Horowitz’s report on how the FBI conducted the Russiagate probe and disagrees with a key conclusion — specifically, Horowitz’s belief that the FBI had a sufficient factual and legal basis to open the investigation three years ago. Sources told both the Post and the New York Times last month that the most recent draft finds that the FBI engaged in sloppy and unprofessional work at certain points of the process but that none of the president’s worst fears are substantiated by the evidence. There’s no reason to think anti-Trump bias influenced top officials; there’s no reason to think Joseph Mifsud was an FBI informant; and most importantly, there’s no reason to think the investigation was opened based on insufficient evidence, like the dossier, that normally wouldn’t justify a FISA warrant. Barr disagrees with that last point, if you believe WaPo, and has made it known to colleagues.

Which sure sounds like the Attorney General is about to knife his own IG and shake public faith (again) in the conclusions of his own agency, possibly for no better reason than that doing so will please his boss, the president. If the initial accounts of what Horowitz’s report will say are accurate, Trump is destined to be disappointed. Maybe this is just Barr signaling to him that he’s on Trump’s side and shouldn’t receive the Jeff Sessions treatment on Twitter. Meanwhile, though, the DOJ’s reputation has already sustained damage from Emailgate and Russiagate and the Strzok/Page fiasco and James Comey’s irrepressible Comey-ness. Imagine if Barr now turns around and declares that the DOJ’s equivalent of Internal Affairs also can’t be trusted to properly police how the FBI conducts itself.

Attorney General William P. Barr has told associates he disagrees with the Justice Department’s inspector general on one of the key findings in an upcoming report — that the FBI had enough information in July 2016 to justify launching an investigation into members of the Trump campaign, according to people familiar with the matter…

The Russia investigation was opened after the FBI was told of statements made by a then Trump campaign aide, George Papadopoulos, that the Russians possessed hacked Hillary Clinton emails. Papadopoulos’s alleged comments were key because they were made well before any public allegation that Russian intelligence operatives had hacked the Democratic National Committee.

The attorney general has privately contended that Horowitz does not have enough information to reach the conclusion the FBI had enough details in hand at the time to justify opening such a probe. He argues that other U.S. agencies, such as the CIA, may hold significant information that could alter Horo­witz’s conclusion on that point, according to the people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Typically when an AG disagrees with the conclusions of an IG report, notes WaPo, it’s on grounds that the IG was too harsh in criticizing the Department. In this case Barr would be criticizing Horowitz for not being harsh enough. That’s exactly what Trump would want from him. The president reportedly took to complaining privately during the Jeff Sessions era, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?”, wondering why his AG wouldn’t serve as an attack dog for the president’s political interests like a personal attorney would. Maybe he’s found his Roy Cohn belatedly after all. (Actually, Rudy Giuliani is Trump’s Roy Cohn. But that’s a separate post.)

So there we have it: Barr is in the tank for Trump, willing to contradict the IG on a key finding in a highly politically sensitive report to signal his loyalty. But … is it really that simple? The Times is also hearing that Barr disputes Horowitz’s finding that the FBI had a sufficient basis to open the Russiagate probe, but there’s a concrete reason.

Mr. Barr’s skepticism could place more pressure on John H. Durham — the federal prosecutor who is conducting a separate criminal inquiry into the roots of the Russia investigation — to find evidence backing Mr. Barr’s position. Mr. Durham has already unearthed some evidence that supports Mr. Barr’s uncertainty of the inspector general’s findings, according to a lawyer involved in the Durham inquiry.

It was not clear what Mr. Barr based his uncertainty on. The threshold to open the Russia investigation was not particularly high. The F.B.I. can open a preliminary inquiry based on “information or an allegation” that a crime or threat to national security may have occurred or will occur, according to bureau policy.

WaPo’s story also alludes to something going on in the Durham investigation that could undermine Horowitz’s conclusions: “Part of Barr’s reluctance to accept that finding is related to another investigation, one being conducted by the U.S. attorney in Connecticut, John Durham, into how intelligence agencies pursued allegations of Russian election tampering in 2016.” What did Durham find? Neither paper seems to have a clue, or at least not a clue they’re willing to share right now. WaPo’s story ends, though, with a brief memory-freshener about the mysterious Joseph Mifsud, whose chat with George Papadopoulos about Russian dirt on Hillary Clinton ended up triggering the Russiagate investigation and who’s since gone off the grid. Mueller’s report suggested that Mifsud was linked to Russia somehow, the paper notes, whereas Papadopoulos and other Trump allies suspect that he was tied to western intelligence agencies.

Is that a hint about what Durham is looking into, something about Mifsud’s connections and what his scheme might have been in dangling the “dirt” to Papadopoulos? Maybe a different arm of U.S. intelligence, like the CIA, had information on Mifsud and who he was working for and the FBI neglected to consider that information before opening the case. That is, maybe with a little more interagency cooperation the FBI would have been satisfied from the start that Mifsud wasn’t a Russian asset and/or in no position to know about any emails and therefore they needn’t have bothered sniffing around Papadopoulos. I’m only speculating; as I say, neither paper offers specifics.

We’re left to wonder, though, why Durham might have uncovered something like that and Horowitz somehow overlooked it. It’s hard to believe Barr, Horowitz, and Durham would allow the IG report to go forward if Durham had a piece of information in his possession that would end up undermining Horowitz’s conclusions once it’s revealed to the public. To avert that, the information would have to be shared with Horowitz even though Durham’s investigation is pending. Horowitz could include the info in his report but redact that section for public consumption or he could, I suppose, withhold his conclusion on whether the Russiagate probe had a sufficient basis until Durham’s probe is complete. But it’s bonkers to think the agency would proceed with Horowitz’s report as-is if there’s a smoking gun that contradicts it somewhere else inside the Department.

It must be that whatever Durham has isn’t a true smoking gun. Horowitz presumably is aware of it and nonetheless has concluded that the FBI had a sound basis to open the Russiagate probe anyway. It’s a difference of opinion, in other words, not Horowitz being left in the dark about something. The alternative, in which Barr knows something that might change Horowitz’s opinion but doesn’t share it with him, is unthinkable.

Which makes me wonder: Maybe these NYT and WaPo stories are a way for Barr or his inner circle to fire a shot across the bow at Horowitz in the days before the report comes out, while there’s still time to change it. Maybe they’ve been lobbying him to revise his conclusion about how the investigation was launched and Horowitz has resisted. Now, by going to the papers, they’re warning him that Barr will disagree with him publicly if he insists on sticking to his guns.

In fairness to Barr, though, both papers claim that he’s praised Horowitz’s work privately. He’s not trying to undermine his entire investigation; he just happens to feel strongly, apparently, on this single point.

Exit quotation from the president this morning: “The IG report is a very important report. If what I read is correct — I read it in your newspaper — if what I read is correct, that will be a little disappointing, but it was just one aspect of the report. We’ll see what happens. It’s coming out in a few days. I hear it’s devastating.” I hope for Barr’s sake that the feeling of “disappointment” doesn’t deepen.

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