The US Justice Department said Tuesday it had named an independent special counsel to continue probing the 2016-2018 investigations of possible collusion between Russia and President Donald Trump's campaign.
Attorney General Bill Barr appointed federal prosecutor John Durham to investigate the Russia investigators, which could include the former FBI director James Comey and previous special counsel Robert Mueller.
While Durham has already been examining those matters under Barr, making him a special counsel will allow Durham to continue unimpeded under a new attorney general even if Trump steps down on January 20 and Democrat Joe Biden assumes the presidency.
Barr made the appointment on October 19, but apparently held off on announcing it to avoid impacting the looming presidential election, in which Biden defeated Trump.
While Biden is expected to name his own attorney general, Barr's replacement will find it politically difficult to force the end of Durham's special counsel operation.
Barr chose Durham in April 2019 to investigate allegations, made most prominently by Trump, that the Russia investigation was corrupt and a political "witch hunt" by the "deep state" aimed at undermining his administration.
So far Durham has only made one case, against an FBI lawyer who had altered an email in documents filed to obtain wiretap permission against a Trump campaign aide.
Meanwhile the Justice Department's own inspector general, who likewise reviewed the handling of the Russia investigations, found no significant wrongdoing.
But in his October 19 order, Barr said Durham's ongoing probe has "developed into a criminal investigation, which remains ongoing."
Durham's focus, according to Barr's order, will remain the FBI's "Crossfire Hurricane" investigation launched in July 2016, and Muller's investigation initiated in May 2017.
Both honed in on Russian hacking and social media manipulation in favor of Trump in 2016, and multiple contacts between the Trump campaign and Moscow.
The Mueller probe expanded that to cover alleged acts of obstruction by Trump. In the end Mueller gained convictions of six members of the Trump campaign, and issued indictments of 25 Russians.
But Mueller found no evidence of criminal cooperation with Russia by the campaign, and his evidence of alleged obstruction by Trump was rejected by Barr.
Barr's order gave Durham wide latitude, however, to "investigate whether any federal official, employee, or any other person or entity violated the law in connection with the intelligence, counter-intelligence, or law-enforcement activities directed at the 2016 presidential campaigns."
According to reports Durham has extended his mandate to probe issues related to Hillary Clinton, Trump's Democratic opponent in the 2016 presidential race.