John Durham, the prosecutor tapped by Attorney General William Barr to investigate how Trump-Russia allegations emerged and spread within federal law enforcement, has already been looking into whether the FBI’s former top lawyer, James Baker, illegally leaked to reporters.
In fact, the U.S. attorney from Connecticut appears to have begun that work more than seven months ago, to judge from an underreported transcript of an October congressional interview with Baker. The Baker interview, at which Durham was not present, suggests that the prosecutor nevertheless has some people very worried.
Baker testified about the Trump-Russia affair on Oct. 3 before the House Judiciary Committee and the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
In that session, the former FBI general counsel admitted that versions and variations of Christopher Steele’s dossier were being turned in to the bureau from the strangest of places. Baker said he had even heard about it from David Corn, Washington bureau chief of left-leaning Mother Jones, who wrote one of the first pieces on the dossier, in October 2016. But in one of those company-town connections that happen frequently in Washington, Baker said he was not just a contact or source for Corn; they were also old pals.
“Tell me about your relationship with David Corn,” said Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan.
“David is a friend of mine,” Baker said.
“Tell me about that. A close friend? Long-time friend?”
Jordan asked, “When did you first meet Mr. Corn?”
“I don't specifically remember,” Baker testified. “A long time ago, though.”
“Years ago? “
“Years and years and years ago, yeah,” Baker allowed. “Our kids carpooled together. We carpooled with them when our kids were little.”
So one of the most divisive scandals in Washington history was facilitated by an unexpected friendship, an odd couple brought together by a shared interest in getting their kids dropped off at school.
The congressman from Ohio wanted to know more about the Baker-Corn relationship: “Prior to the election of – Presidential election of 2016,” Jordan asked, “how many times did you talk with David Corn in the weeks and months prior to election day?”
“I don't remember,” Baker said, providing an answer that suggests it was more than a few.
“Is it fair to say you did” talk with Corn, Jordan asked?
“Yes, I did, but I just don't remember how many [times].”
“So did you talk to Mr. Corn about anything that the FBI was working on,” Jordan asked, “specifically the now infamous Steele dossier?”
Suddenly, Baker’s lawyer, Dan Levin, jumped in: “One second,” he said before he and his client had a conversation off the record.
When the microphones were back on, Levin declared he would “not let [Baker] answer these questions right now. You may or may not know, he's been the subject of a leak investigation which is still – a criminal leak investigation that's still active at the Justice Department.” And so Levin concluded, “I’m sorry. I'm cutting off any discussion about conversations with reporters.”
North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows wanted to make clear what Baker’s lawyer was claiming: “You're saying he's under criminal investigation? That's why you're not letting him answer?”
Levin and the lawmakers sparred a bit over whether Baker was invoking his Fifth Amendment rights, and the congressmen finally got around to asking who was leading this criminal probe:
“There is an ongoing investigation by whom?” Jordan said.
“The Justice Department,” Levin responded.
“I mean, is the inspector general looking at this or is this—”
“No,” said Levin, “it's Mr. John Durham, a prosecutor.”
The specter of Durham haunts the rest of the interview. Baker can’t talk about what he told his old friend David Corn in their conversations about the dossier because it would put Baker in legal jeopardy.
Time and again, when Baker was asked questions about reporters – even hypothetical questions about FBI policy regarding contacts with the press, Levin said, “I'm not going to allow him to answer that question” or “I am not going let him answer any questions about leaks.”
“I don't want him talking about conversations he's had with reporters because I don't know what the questions are and I don't know what the answers are right now,” Levin said. “Given that there is an ongoing investigation of him for leaks which the Department has not closed, I'm not comfortable letting him answer questions.” Durham’s inquiry was serious enough to limit significantly what Baker was willing to talk about with lawmakers.
That Baker’s lawyer advised him not to talk about leaks is, of course, not proof that Baker leaked. "Baker's lawyer was obviously being prudent and saying his client could not talk about anything related to any leaks of any kind," David Corn tells RealClearInvestigations. Corn emphasizes that the "Durham inquiry did not involve Russia or the Steele memos; it had nothing to do with me or my limited interaction with Baker."
And one former federal official who said he has been interviewed by Durham in connection with the Baker probe, Robert Litt, has written that the inquiry has nothing to do with the Steele dossier.
Contacted by RealClearInvestigations, Levin said, “Mr. Baker did not make an unauthorized disclosure of classified information and we are confident the investigation will conclude that.”