By Chuck Ross
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, one of the leading proponents of Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation, said Tuesday he opposes Attorney General William Barr’s decision to appoint U.S. Attorney John Durham as special counsel in an investigation into the origins of the Trump-Russia probe.
In an interview on MSNBC, Schiff suggested that the attorney general in the Biden administration should assess Durham’s mandate and decide whether to allow the prosecutor to continue his investigation.
“In an appointment secretly conferred on Durham prior to the election … Barr is using the special counsel law for a purpose it was not intended: to continue a politically motivated investigation long after Barr leaves office,” Schiff said in a statement on Tuesday after Barr said he had appointed Durham to the special prosecutor role on Oct. 19.
It is a stark about-face for Schiff, who was one of Congress’s most vocal defenders of the special counsel investigation led by Mueller, a former FBI director.
Schiff called on lawmakers in September 2018 to pass legislation to protect the Mueller probe in case President Donald Trump tried to shut down the investigation.
“The best thing we can do … is to take up this bill to protect Mueller so we don’t invite a constitutional crisis,” Schiff said in an interview on Sept. 26, 2018.
While Mueller investigated the activities of Trump, members of his campaign and other associates, Durham has investigated the intelligence-gathering activities of the FBI, CIA and other agencies related to the Trump campaign in 2016.
Barr tapped Durham on May 13, 2019, to conduct the inquiry, which has since morphed into a criminal probe.
The investigation appears to be largely centered on the findings of a Justice Department inspector general’s (IG) report that said that FBI misled a federal surveillance court in order to obtain warrants to surveil Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.
The IG report said that the FBI made 17 “significant” errors and omissions in applications to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) for warrants to surveil Page.
The presiding judge of the FISC admonished the FBI last December for misleading the court. The Justice Department invalidated two of the four surveillance warrants granted against Page due to the high number of inaccuracies in the applications.
Republicans had hoped that Durham would hand down a slew of criminal indictments before the election last month. Instead, Durham has yielded a single conviction. Former FBI lawyer Kevin Clinesmith pleaded guilty in the Durham probe on Aug. 19 to altering an email from the CIA in June 2017 regarding Carter Page’s relationship with the spy agency.
A growing number of Republicans have called on Barr to appoint a special counsel in order to ensure that Durham’s investigation will remain intact into a Joe Biden presidency. The president-elect has not weighed in on whether he would allow Durham, the U.S. attorney for Connecticut, to continue his investigation without a special counsel designation.
Barr said in a letter to Congress on Tuesday that he initially expected Durham to complete his work over the summer, but that it was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.
“In advance of the presidential election, I decided to appoint Mr. Durham as a Special Counsel to provide him and his team with the assurance that they could complete their work, without regard to the outcome of the election,” he wrote.
Schiff said in an interview on MSNBC on Tuesday that Barr may not have the authority to appoint Durham to serve as special counsel. He appeared to be referencing the federal code’s requirement that a special counsel must be chosen from outside government.
Schiff said that Joe Biden’s attorney general would have the authority to shut down Durham’s investigation if they see fit.
“The appointment is not consistent with the language of the statute that he’s relying on and can be rescinded, I think, by the next attorney general,” Schiff said.
“I would presume the next attorney general will look to see if there is any merit to the work that John Durham is doing and make a rational decision about whether that should continue at any level.”
The California Democrat also said he considers Durham’s appointment to be “politically motivated” and that his investigation “has been tainted from the beginning.”
Schiff did not say whether he believes Durham should be allowed to continue his investigation even without a special counsel designation.
Many of Schiff’s early theories about the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia have been debunked over the past several years.
The IG report’s most startling findings center on the FBI’s handling of the Steele dossier, which alleged that the Trump campaign and Kremlin were engaged in a “well-developed conspiracy of cooperation” to influence the 2016 election.
Schiff touted the salacious document during a House Intelligence Committee hearing on March 20, 2017. He frequently embraced the collusion theory in media interviews throughout 2017 and 2018.
In a memo released on Feb. 2, 2018, Schiff defended the FBI against Republican claims that the bureau had misled the FISC regarding the Steele dossier.
“FBI and DOJ officials did not ‘abuse’ the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) process, omit material information, or subvert this vital tool to spy on the Trump campaign,” he wrote in the memo.
And in one now-infamous interview, Schiff said that he had seen “more than circumstantial evidence” of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
But the IG report, as well as a report from Mueller’s office, undercut the dossier’s core allegation of a Trump-Russia conspiracy.
The Mueller report said that investigations found no evidence of a conspiracy between the campaign and Russia. The IG report said that dossier author Christopher Steele’s primary source, Igor Danchenko, said he was unable to verify the allegations found in the report.
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