Bill Barr’s “Russiagate” Probe into the Mueller Investigation Was a Sham. Has the Media Learned its Lesson?


Donald Trump has spent years casting the investigation into his campaign ties to Russia as a biased, political “witch hunt” — and his handpicked attorney general, Bill Barr, sought to use his office to prove as much, with a four-year special counsel probe into so-called “Russiagate.” But, as it turns out, that inquiry under Trump was far more fitting of the “witch hunt” label than the one conducted by Robert Mueller

According to the New York Times, Barr and John Durham, the special counsel he appointed to investigate the investigators, not only failed to find any evidence of the “deep state” conspiracy Trump incessantly claimed to be the victim of — the pair actually received a tip from Italian authorities that Trump himself may have been involved in financial crimes, a claim that became part of the investigation, though no charges were ultimately filed. Barr and Durham did not publicly disclose that the former president had become a subject of the inquiry, even as the Times and other outlets reported in 2019 that the special counsel’s probe had come to involve a criminal investigation — a framing that implied, of course, Durham had found evidence to support Trump’s accusations of wrongdoing by federal law enforcement. Barr, who was in regular contact with Durham, allowed that impression to stand, which in turn allowed Trump to keep playing the victim of a Democrat-led conspiracy and his allies to keep running cover for him.

“Those who damaged America and broke the law to spread this hoax are about to face accountability,” then-Congressman Mark Meadows, who’d go on to serve as Trump’s chief of staff, tweeted after the criminal nature of the probe was first reported in the fall of 2019. 

Durham, meanwhile, used Russian intelligence memos and grand jury powers to investigate financier George Soros — a bogeyman of the right — and scrutinized Hillary Clinton. As the Times noted Thursday, Durham has not publicly disclosed any evidence from the Soros aide’s emails he accessed, and a Clinton lawyer was quickly acquitted of the flimsy charges his team brought in the probe. 

The revelations are significant for a couple reasons. For one, they underscore an old truism about Trumpworld — that their accusations tend to be something more like admissions. For another, they speak to the dubious nature of the Durham probe, which ran twice as long as the Mueller investigation that triggered it. “This stuff has my head spinning,” Robert Luskin, a former Justice Department prosecutor who represented two witnesses interviewed by Durham, told the Times. “When did these guys drink the Kool-Aid, and who served it to them?” But there is also a lesson in all this for the media, which allowed itself to be used by Barr and Trump as a tool of obfuscation rather than clarity. 

It’s especially important for outlets to heed that lesson now, as the new GOP majority in the House launches cynical investigations into President Joe Biden and the supposed “weaponization of the federal government,” the latter of which Trump ally Jim Jordan will lead in an obvious effort to lend legitimacy to the same kinds of lies and conspiracy theories Durham tried to prove and apparently could not. “It has already been done,” as MSNBC’s Chris Hayes put it Thursday night. “It cost six million dollars. It went on for four years. It failed.” 

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