Prosecutor appointed by Barr poised to enter Washington firestorm

A new U.S. prosecutor is about to enter the center of a partisan firestorm in Washington. 

John Durham, a longtime Justice Department official who is serving as a U.S. attorney in Connecticut, has reportedly been picked by Attorney General William BarrWilliam Pelham BarrLawmaker wants Chinese news outlet to register as foreign agent The Hill's Morning Report - Trump trial begins with clashes, concessions Barr wrote 2018 memo contradicting Trump's claim that abuse of power is not impeachable MORE to review the origins of the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference. 

The Justice Department has been silent on the reports about Barr’s decision, and a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Connecticut also declined to comment.

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Reports of the move have prompted cheers from Republicans while evoking suspicion from Democrats who have been critical of Barr’s decision to review the origins of the intelligence collection on the Trump campaign, which the attorney general referred to as “spying” last month.   

Durham has a reputation for nonpartisanship and investigating sensitive national security matters, including leading a Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation into the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques,” which are now widely viewed as torture, on terrorist suspects starting in 2008 under the appointment of then-Attorney General Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderEnd impeachment's government shutdown Parties to wage census battle with outside groups Welcome to third-world democracy and impeachment MORE. He also helped prosecute Connecticut’s former Gov. John Rowland, who is a Republican.

The attorney received a positive recommendation by his state’s two Democratic senators, Richard Blumenthal and Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyTensions between McConnell and Schumer run high as trial gains momentum Nadler gets under GOP's skin Senate Republicans muscle through rules for Trump trial MORE, when he was appointed to his position in Connecticut by President TrumpDonald John TrumpMnuchin knocks Greta Thunberg's activism: Study economics and then 'come back' to us The Hill's Morning Report - House prosecutes Trump as 'lawless,' 'corrupt' What to watch for on Day 3 of Senate impeachment trial MORE. The Senate confirmed Durham by voice vote.

But Democrats are blasting the purpose of the investigation, accusing Barr of fueling conspiracy theories and GOP talking points by dedicating resources to a third investigation into the origins of the Russia probe, a move they say threatens to alienate members of the attorney general’s own law enforcement team. 

“It is another very professional public servant tasked with a very unprofessional and unbecoming job,” said Blumenthal.

Blumenthal said Durham risks “sullying” his long record as a straight shooter.

“This investigation of the investigators is a politically motivated distraction. And it threatens to degrade the career professionals who devote their lives — like John Durham — to law enforcement,” the Connecticut senator added.

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Conservative allies of the president, however, are hailing the decision as another sign of progress under the leadership of Barr, whom they say has proved he is committed to unearthing bias against the president during the early days of the Russia probe. 

“I view this as something we’ve been asking for and that the attorney general is now going to do it,” said Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanCheney's decision not to run for Senate sparks Speaker chatter The Hill's Morning Report - Trump trial begins with clash over rules This week: Raucous rules fight, opening arguments in impeachment trial MORE (Ohio), the top Republican on the House Oversight and Reform Committee and one of the president’s close allies.

Trump told reporters Tuesday he did not ask Barr to open the inquiry but expressed satisfaction at the developments. 

“I think it’s a great thing that he did it. I saw it last night. And they want to look at how that whole hoax got started,” Trump said. “I am so proud of our attorney general that he is looking into it.” 

Barr said last month that he was reviewing the “genesis and conduct” of the original Russia investigation in order to determine whether “improper surveillance” occurred, bringing together a group of colleagues to help him. He didn’t offer any names and dismissed reports he had set up a “team” to handle the review. 

“I think spying on a political campaign is a big deal,” Barr told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee in April. 

“I am not saying that improper surveillance occurred. I’m saying that I am concerned about it and looking into it. That’s all,” he said later. 

Republicans, who welcomed Barr’s earlier remarks, have long been calling for a second special counsel to be put in charge of such an investigation, but Barr’s reported appointment does not give Durham the formal title of a special counsel or a special prosecutor. 

Despite this, Republicans indicate they are satisfied by the move because they trust Barr will thoroughly examine how and why the FBI and DOJ officials decided to launch a counterintelligence investigation into a presidential candidate.

“I don’t know that you necessarily need the formal title of a special counsel. I just think you need to get to the bottom of it, and I think the attorney general’s indicated he’s going to do that,” Jordan told The Hill. “I trust the attorney general. And I trust the folks that the attorney general’s selected to help him complete this task.”

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamRestlessness, light rule-breaking and milk spotted on Senate floor as impeachment trial rolls on Senator-jurors who may not be impartial? Remove them for cause Broad, bipartisan rebuke for proposal to pull troops from Africa MORE (R-S.C.) described it as a “reasonable approach.”  

Durham’s reported investigation runs parallel to two other ongoing probes, including those led by Inspector General Michael Horowitz and John Huber, a U.S. attorney in Utah who is working in cooperation with the DOJ watchdog.

Horowitz is investigating whether the FBI followed applicable procedures in applying for a warrant to surveil former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page and is also said to be looking into whether the bureau appropriately handled informants. Huber, who was quietly tapped by former Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsLawmaker wants Chinese news outlet to register as foreign agent Trump-aligned group launches ad campaign hitting Doug Jones on impeachment ICE subpoenas Denver law enforcement: report MORE last year, is examining certain aspects of the early days of the Russia probe.

The findings of both investigations have not been announced, but Barr has previously said the inspector general is expected to conclude his inquiry in May or June. 

And while the timing for Huber’s findings remains unclear, his appointment and unusual arrangement with Horowitz were viewed at the time as a way of placating a vocal group of Republicans alleging bias against the president. 

Instead, Republicans have grown critical of Huber’s work.

In a letter earlier this year, Jordan and Rep. Doug CollinsDouglas (Doug) Allen CollinsThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump trial begins with clash over rules This week: Raucous rules fight, opening arguments in impeachment trial White House appoints GOP House members to advise Trump's impeachment team MORE (Ga.), the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, asked Huber to provide Congress with an update on his probe while expressing concern he has not talked to a series of key witnesses. 

Jordan on Tuesday said Durham’s appointment suggests Huber “hasn’t done squat.”

“We haven’t heard a darn thing for him in over a year or close to a year now,” Jordan said.