Questions surround the work of U.S. Attorney John Huber, who is playing a key role in one of the multiple investigations surrounding President Trump and the Justice Department.
Known as a no-nonsense prosecutor whose primary experience is fighting violent crime, the U.S. attorney for Utah is an appointee of President Obama whose job was saved by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) when Trump asked state attorneys to resign so that he could field a new slate of professionals.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions quietly tapped Huber — apparently last fall — to work in tandem with the Justice Department's inspector general to determine whether conservative allegations of abuse at the FBI and the Justice Department merit investigation.
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It's an unusual arrangement, and one that fall short of demands from the right that Sessions name a second special counsel. That idea has generated controversy, with critics saying the second appointee would inevitably impede the work of special counsel Robert Mueller.
The administration has provided few public details about Huber's assignment beyond a lengthy message from Sessions to Congress in which he argued that his appointment should be sufficient to address the concerns raised by GOP lawmakers.
The Justice Department has declined to comment on his budget or what Sessions meant when he said that Huber is working "in cooperation" with Inspector General Michael Horowitz. Horowitz's office also declined to comment.
White House officials see Huber as a second special counsel in everything but name because he has the authority to prosecute, a task the inspector general has to refer to a U.S. attorney.
But outside the White House, there is less certainty about his role. Some of the more vocal conservative advocates of appointing a second special counsel aren't mollified. One former senior Justice Department official called the appointment "window dressing … more aimed at placating Congress than anything else."
Brett Tolman, who was the U.S. attorney for Utah prior to Huber and a former counsel in the Senate Judiciary Committee under Hatch, also said the appointment is "form over substance … to pacify those that might be clamoring for [a second special counsel]."
"If there's a means to justify John Huber and it's being touted as a special prosecutor, then why not appoint a special prosecutor? And if there's not, then why not let the [inspector general] handle this, which is the traditional and historical avenue for dealing with investigation of DOJ and the FBI?" he said.
Both critics and supporters of Huber's appointment say that they can think of no precedent for the arrangement. While it's not unusual for an inspector general to work with a U.S. attorney if there is potentially criminal activity, notes former U.S. Attorney John Wood, it is usually in the district where the conduct occurred.
The benefit of the Sessions arrangement, said legal scholar Jonathan Turley, is that it could allow for the expedition of any criminal inquiries at a point in the inspector general investigation where Horowitz would normally need help from a U.S. attorney. (Turley is an opinions contributor for The Hill.)
Supporters of the arrangement say that the selection of Huber — as a U.S. attorney appointed under two administrations working outside of the Beltway — will inject confidence in whatever conclusions he reaches about the need for further investigation or prosecution.
"I think it's an inspired choice," said Paul Cassell, a former federal judge who both heard cases that Huber was prosecuting and later litigated against Huber as an attorney. "However this thing comes out, one side or the other will be convinced that the fix was in. You need to find somebody that has respect from both parties and someone who is outside the ordinary political process."
But, he said, "This is not some kind of a feel-good exercise. I think this a serious request to a serious prosecutor to take a serious look at this situation and give his assessment of it."
Huber is not unfamiliar with Washington. He raised eyebrows when he appeared at a White House podium last year to tout a pair of House bills that would have bolstered elements of Trump's immigration agenda; Sessions has promoted that agenda heavily at the Justice Department. Critics said the appearance showed an inappropriate closeness between the Trump White House and the Justice Department.
Afterwards, Huber took a leadership position on an influential committee of U.S. attorneys that advises Sessions. (He was originally appointed to the panel by Obama-era Attorney General Loretta Lynch.)
"In a lot of respects, I think John Huber has become one of [Sessions's] go-to men," Tolman said.
One key difference between Huber and a special counsel is the level of autonomy — and presumably resources — he has. According to Sessions, Huber provides him with regular updates about his work.
Sessions did not close the door on appointing a second special counsel if Huber recommends it — although he has repeatedly indicated misgivings about such an appointment.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) have all called for a second special counsel to investigate a variety of different conservative allegations related to the Obama-era Justice Department.
Republicans have urged the Justice Department to investigate putative wrongdoing by the Clinton Foundation, as well as the 2010 sale of a Toronto-based uranium company with U.S. holdings to a Russian state-owned firm — a sale Trump has also repeatedly highlighted.
They have also demanded a probe into how the Obama Justice Department handled the investigation into Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server during her time as secretary of State. Horowitz is expected to issue a report in his investigation into the matter as soon as April.
More recently, Republicans have pushed for a probe into allegations of surveillance abuse raised by a controversial memo authored by staff for House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.).
The inspector general announced last week that he is launching a separate investigation into those allegations.