The Justice Department investigation into the origins of its own probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election has morphed from an administrative review into a criminal inquiry, a potentially significant shift that gives the federal prosecutor leading the inquiry broader powers to compel testimony and the production of records.
How significant the new criminal aspect of the inquiry truly is remained unclear, however. Justice Department officials on Friday declined to divulge what prompted John Durham, the federal prosecutor handling the case, to ramp up his investigation.
The decision may stem, however, from a referral by the Justice Department’s inspector general, Michael Horowitz, about a witness who may have lied to his investigators, according to a person familiar with the matter. If so, that could mean the criminal aspect of the case is fairly limited.
Horowitz is expected to soon release a report on the Justice Department’s handling in 2016 and 2017 of secret surveillance of a former Trump campaign advisor.
A Justice Department spokeswoman, Kerri Kupec, declined to comment on the matter.
President Trump, who for years has prodded the Justice Department to investigate its own investigators, on Friday sounded confident that Durham would justify his calls for action.
“I can’t tell you what’s happening,” the president told reporters, but “I will tell you this: I think you’re going to see a lot of really bad things.”
Durham’s investigation is the most politically fraught of three inquiries digging into aspects of the Justice Department’s handling of high-profile investigations in 2016. Atty. Gen. William Barr personally tapped Durham, a veteran and respected U.S. attorney in Connecticut, to lead the inquiry and has kept close tabs on his progress, Justice Department officials said.
Barr has even accompanied the prosecutor on overseas trips to press counterparts to provide information that may help the investigation.
The attorney general’s keen interest in Durham’s work has raised concerns that the nation’s top law enforcement officer is chasing conspiracy theories championed by Trump, who has repeatedly challenged U.S. intelligence and law enforcement assessments that Russia actively sought to assist his campaign.
Top House Democrats on Thursday night decried the decision to open what they called a “politically motivated investigation.”
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, in a joint statement said the criminal inquiry “raised profound new concerns that the Department of Justice under Attorney General William Barr has lost its independence and become a vehicle for President Trump’s political revenge.”
“If the Department of Justice may be used as a tool of political retribution or to help the President with a political narrative for the next election, the rule of law will suffer new and irreparable damage,” they added.
The other two Justice Department investigations into 2016-related matters are being led by Horowitz and John Huber, the U.S. attorney in Utah, who had been selected by former Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions to conduct a broad review of the Russia inquiry and investigations related to Trump campaign opponent Hillary Clinton. Durham took over Huber’s Russia portfolio, Barr has said. Justice Department officials have declined to say whether Huber is still investigating how the agency handled Clinton-related inquiries.
Horowitz has told Congress that his team interviewed more than 100 witnesses and reviewed a million records, and he has submitted a draft report to Justice Department officials to review and declassify.
He has focused his attention on how the Justice Department and FBI obtained an order from the nation’s top spy court to eavesdrop on communications by a former campaign advisor, Carter Page. The FBI suspected Page might have been a Russian agent; Page was not charged with any crimes.
Former Justice Department officials have said they have confidence Horowitz is conducting a nonpartisan review. They suspect his report will fault how the Justice Department and FBI handled certain aspects of the case.
Barr apparently did not believe the inspector general’s investigation was sufficient and appointed Durham to conduct his own review. Durham appears to be focusing, in part, on the work of U.S. and foreign intelligence agencies, according to Justice Department officials.