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Trump administration's probe of the Russia investigation may be nearing conclusion

The prosecutor in charge, Connecticut U.S. Attorney Durham, has asked to interview ex-CIA Director John Brennan, says a person familiar with the request.
Image: William Barr
Attorney General William Barr appears before the House Oversight Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, on July 28, 2020.Matt McClain / Pool via AP

WASHINGTON — The investigation ordered by Attorney General William Barr into how the CIA and the FBI looked into the Trump campaign's connections to Russia's 2016 election interference operation may be nearing a conclusion, people familiar with it say.

One indication is that the prosecutor in charge, Connecticut U.S. Attorney John Durham, has asked to interview former CIA Director John Brennan, according to a person familiar with the request. Brennan has agreed to be interviewed, and the details are being worked out, the person said.

Attorney General William Barr told Congress last month that he would not wait until after the election to present Durham's findings if they are finalized. Barr has made clear he believes Obama administration officials acted wrongfully when they opened a counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign's dealings with Russians, but the Justice Department's inspector general found that the investigation was justified and untainted by political bias.

Image: John Brennan
John Brennan testifies before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on Capitol Hill, on May 23, 2017.Drew Angerer / Getty Images file

Democrats in Congress and elsewhere say the Barr-Durham investigation smacks of a politically motivated effort to help President Donald Trump's re-election campaign.

Brennan, a vocal critic of Trump and an NBC News analyst, has been the subject of intense scrutiny by Durham. Brennan was director of the CIA from 2013 until the day of Trump's inauguration. The New York Times reported in December that the prosecutor was reviewing Brennan's emails, call logs and other records, which was confirmed to NBC News by a person familiar with the matter.

Brennan declined to comment for this story, but has previously called the Durham probe "bizarre." The former CIA director questioned the legal basis for it, as have many other former Obama administration officials and Democratic lawmakers.

First described as a review, Durham's probe morphed in part into a criminal investigation, but it's unclear exactly what criminal allegations he is examining.

The Justice Department's inspector general made a criminal referral pertaining to the conduct of Kevin Clinesmith, an FBI lawyer whom the IG accused of making a misrepresentation to a secret court that approved national security surveillance warrants. Specifically, the IG said Clinesmith altered an email in a way that hid the fact that former Trump adviser Carter Page had been a CIA source — information that would have been relevant to the court in the context of Page's dealings with Russians.

Special counsel Robert Mueller ultimately concluded after a two-year investigation that he could not prove a conspiracy, though he found that the Trump campaign welcomed and made strategic use of Democratic emails stolen by Russian intelligence officers, and unwittingly amplified Russian propaganda on social media.

Trump has said repeatedly without evidence that President Barack Obama and officials working for him committed crimes, including "treason," in an attempt to frame Trump over his campaign's Russian contacts.

Barr's language has been more careful, but he has made clear he views the opening of the Russia investigation as an abuse of power.

In Congressional testimony last month, he said he vowed "to do everything I could to get to the bottom of the grave abuses involved in the bogus 'Russiagate' scandal…"

Bill Priestap, who was the FBI's counterintelligence chief, formally opened the investigation, known as Crossfire Hurricane, on July 31, 2016. A report in December by DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz concluded that Priestap's "exercise of discretion in opening the investigation was in compliance with Department and FBI policies, and we did not find documentary or testimonial evidence that political bias or improper motivation influenced his decision."

The Durham investigation appears be chiefly aimed at examining how and why the FBI decided to open its counterintelligence probe into Trump and his aides. Then-Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe added Trump’s name as a subject of the investigation in May 2017, and McCabe has said that Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey, along with other behavior, promoted reasonable suspicion of an inappropriate relationship with Russia.

As part of his examination of the evidence, Durham has interviewed officials of foreign governments that became part of the Russia investigation, including Italy, Australia and Britain, NBC News has reported.

Durham and his investigators have also interviewed several current and former FBI officials, people familiar with the matter said. But Durham has not interviewed former directors Comey and McCabe, or former director of national intelligence James Clapper, according to two sources who are tracking the probe. A person close to Clapper said Clapper was informed by Durham’s office that he would not be interviewed as part of the investigation.

Durham has also questioned CIA officials involved in the creation of the formal assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to favor Trump, according to people familiar with the matter. That avenue of inquiry has deeply troubled current and former intelligence officials.

"It's unprecedented for a prosecutor to be looking at an analytic call under the microscope of a criminal investigation," said Marc Polymeropoulos, a former CIA officer who worked on the assessment.

Andrea Kendall Taylor, a former analyst at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence who worked on the assessment, said the judgments were the product of a small group of analysts who worked independently.

"To suggest that there was political interference in that process is ridiculous," she said.

In April, a bipartisan investigation by the Senate Intelligence Committee validated the January 2017 intelligence assessment, describing it as accurate, thorough, and untainted by political bias.

"In all the interviews of those who drafted and prepared the (assessment), the Committee heard consistently that analysts were under no politically motivated pressure to reach specific conclusions," the Senate report says. "All analysts ... were free to debate, object to content, and assess confidence levels."

Barr has suggested Durham may indict people.

"He is looking to bring to justice people who are engaged in abuses if he can show that they were criminal violations, and that's what the focus is on," said Barr earlier this year on Fox News.

In June, he told Fox that "developments" in the Durham probe will likely emerge before summer is over.

The DOJ declined to comment.