The records could begin to fill in gaps about the start of Durham’s review. Barr has been clear about his skepticism of the Russia investigation since even before he became attorney general, yet how the Durham probe began, how closely Barr has directed Durham’s work and the full sweep of Durham’s investigation isn’t known. While it’s unclear how routinely Barr was meeting with other prosecutors in Durham’s position at the end of the Mueller investigation, the newly discovered details of his meetings with Durham illuminate how the two men communicated at a crucial time.
The newly released records show Barr moved quickly after becoming attorney general in February 2019 to get face time with Durham.
Of course, Barr is the attorney general, and Durham his subordinate. But the frequency and timing of their meetings compared to other US Attorneys, who’ve noted Barr stays closest to matters concerning Washington, shows Barr’s interest in his Connecticut-based prosecutor.
Since last summer, Barr and President Donald Trump have used the Durham investigation to sow skepticism about the Mueller investigation — and its findings, of extensive contacts between the Trump campaign and Russians and several attempts by the President to obstruct justice.
The Durham probe has become an even more significant part of Trump’s political focus this month, since the department announced it was ending its prosecution of Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn.
Barr’s busy spring
The documents shared with CNN indicate that the first meeting between Barr and Durham occurred during one of the most consequential weeks of Barr’s tenure.
Mueller closed his investigation and submitted his report to Barr on Friday, March 22, 2019.
That same afternoon, Barr and his closest advisers were meeting with Durham. Three employees joined them from the Justice Management Division, which handles logistical needs for the Justice Department, signaling Barr was discussing department resources with Durham. The Justice Management Division typically handles budgeting and resource requests within the department, often helping its branches set up employee details, leasing space and equipment and other administrative needs.
The documents don’t reveal what Barr and Durham discussed at their first meeting, which was scheduled for 30 minutes in the early afternoon, according to the records.
It’s normal for an attorney general to meet with underlings, but the timing of this meeting is striking. A few days later, on March 27, Mueller followed up with Barr with a second letter, writing the attorney general “did not fully capture” his findings, and they also spoke on the phone.
Then-Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversaw the Mueller investigation until he resigned in May 2019, wasn’t invited to any of the early meetings Barr had with Durham — meaning if Barr was speaking to Durham, the top official to have shepherded the Mueller investigation and the top manager to whom US attorneys typically report appears to have been cut out. American Oversight had also sought records between the deputy attorney general’s office and Durham’s and has received none.
A Justice Department spokesperson declined to comment for this story.
Over the next few weeks, the Justice Department prepared the public version of the Mueller report, making redactions to protect ongoing investigations and grand jury material.
Barr hinted at his internal thinking about the Durham review during an April 10, 2019, Senate hearing, in which he said he believed that there had been “spying” against Trump’s campaign in 2016, and that he was preparing to review the matter at the Justice Department. The comment raised eyebrows from some senators at the hearing — and led to a series of effusive tweets from the President.
Two days later, a senior Barr aide arranged for Durham to meet Justice Department inspector general Michael Horowitz, according to the documents. The Barr aide, Seth DuCharme, spoke with Horowitz on April 12, 2019, to “explain what (we) are working on,” mentioning Durham and another person whose name is redacted for personal privacy reasons, according to the records.
Horowitz’s office declined to comment, and it’s possible Durham and Horowitz were communicating about a more typical internal Justice Department review. But the close involvement of the attorney general’s aide appears to show hands-on coordination within the department about Durham’s work.
DuCharme has since been promoted to serve as Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General.
These meetings and communications weren’t publicly acknowledged at the time. But Trump was publicly clamoring for the Justice Department to investigate the origins of the Russia probe.
Clues from the records
Austin Evers, executive director of American Oversight, which obtained the documents from a public records lawsuit, criticized how closely the attorney general has worked with Durham.
“Bill Barr had repeated meetings and calls with John Durham at critical moments linked to the Russia investigation, and that raises serious questions about the independence and credibility of whatever Durham produces,” Evers said, accusing Barr of running “interference” for Trump.
The group is also seeking documents about any contacts Durham had with the White House or Congress.
It’s unknown what Barr and Durham discussed at these meetings, and there are many reasons why attorneys general meet with US attorneys. But the frequency of their face-to-face meetings during this critical time — while Mueller’s office wrapped up its work — raised questions for several former Justice Department lawyers who learned of Barr’s meetings this week.
“It’s 116,000 people in this department. The attorney general has a sprawling job. Generally the AG is pretty remote,” said Marshall Jarrett, a longtime Justice Department veteran who led the executive office for the US Attorneys until 2014. “It seems abundantly clear that Barr has a keen interest in the Durham investigation.”
Some attorneys general are more hands on with their underlings than others. As the boss, Barr can reach out as much as he wants to. “That’s an attorney general’s prerogative,” Jarrett added.
But several Justice Department sources have emphasized how much Barr has stayed focused on Washington controversies, rather than being hands-on with his US attorneys’ work around the country.
Jarrett said meetings with the Judicial Management Division can be telling, because that office is needed to help set up a special operation or a review like what Durham is working on. The office handles logistics like reassigning or detailing staff, leasing space and procuring furniture.
“You’re essentially creating a new office” with Durham’s investigation, Jarrett said.
US Attorneys in previous administrations typically came to Washington about every six weeks, and at that time as a group would meet with the attorney general and deputy attorney general, according to Jarrett.
Nothing in the documents indicates White House involvement in the efforts to launch Durham’s work in spring 2019. But by using Durham, Barr has carried out Trump’s public demand to “investigate the investigators” and to scrutinize his opponents from the Obama administration.
“Barr is highly intelligent,” Jarrett said. “He is very savvy and very smart. And he thinks far, far ahead on everything.”