The Justice Department is mired in 2016.
Three separate Justice Department investigations are examining controversies left over from the last presidential race — the origins of the Russia probe, Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation, and court-approved surveillance of a former Trump campaign advisor.
Atty. Gen. William Barr is closely supervising the case that is most politically fraught, involving the start of the Russia investigation. That has raised concerns that the nation’s top law enforcement officer is chasing conspiracy theories championed by President Trump, who has repeatedly challenged U.S. intelligence and law enforcement assessments that Moscow actively sought to assist his 2016 campaign.
Current and former Justice Department officials say they are worried that Barr’s involvement has hurt morale among career prosecutors at Justice and will erode confidence in federal law enforcement.
Barr drew heavy fire from Democrats, former federal prosecutors and legal experts over his handling of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report last spring, and more recently over a whistleblower’s complaint alleging that Trump sought to prod Ukraine’s president into investigating a political rival.
“Barr is making it seem like the Justice Department can be co-opted to do the president’s personal bidding,” said Mary McCord, a former top career prosecutor who oversaw the department’s national security division under President Obama and into the first months of the Trump administration. “It looks like he is trying to ferret out some weird conspiracy theories that have been floating around but don’t seem to have any legs.”
The reinvestigation of the Russia probe “just confers a patina of political partisanship to this whole undertaking,” said David Laufman, a former Justice Department counterintelligence prosecutor who helped oversee the investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server when she was secretary of State, and the early stages of the Russia inquiry.
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment on the investigations. The attorney general’s defenders say he is being unfairly criticized and would not allow the department to be used for partisan purposes.
“Barr is interested in making sure investigations are completed without interference,” said Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor and a friend of Barr’s. “He protected the special counsel and now he is protecting the countervailing investigations. I’m very glad Barr is at the Justice Department. He is trying to protect it.”
The outcomes of the three investigations could shape public perceptions of the independence of the Justice Department and its ability to handle politically sensitive investigations.
Depending on their findings, the probes could quiet conspiracy theories or aid Trump’s efforts to undermine Mueller’s findings on Russia’s role. The conclusions also could bolster Trump’s argument that the House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry is a partisan witch hunt.
The department’s inspector general, who functions as an internal watchdog, is expected to release findings shortly into the origins of the Russia investigation and how prosecutors and FBI agents obtained secret court warrants to spy on Carter Page, a former Trump campaign advisor.
Inspector General Michael Horowitz has told Congress 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.
The FBI suspected Page might be a Russian agent and the Justice Department convinced the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in 2016 to approve a then-secret warrant to eavesdrop on communications by the former campaign advisor.
Judges on the court renewed the warrants three times. The final approval was issued in June 2017, six months into the Trump administration. Page has not been charged with any crimes.
Republicans and Trump allies say the Justice Department did not adequately disclose to the FISA court its reliance on information from Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence officer who compiled a dossier in Trump in 2016 that was ultimately funded by Democrats.
A spokesman for Horowitz did not return emails seeking comment on the office’s investigation or when its conclusions might be released.
Former Justice Department officials said they have confidence Horowitz is conducting a nonpartisan probe. They suspect the report will fault how the Justice Department and FBI handled Steele, and how they presented his information to the court.
Barr apparently did not believe the inspector general’s investigation was sufficient. Not long after taking office in February, he tapped John Durham, the U.S. attorney in Connecticut, to lead a separate inquiry into the Russia investigation.
Durham, who led several high-profile investigations in his career, appears to be focusing on the work of U.S. and foreign intelligence agencies, according to Justice Department officials.
Barr, who served as attorney general and deputy attorney general in the George H.W. Bush administration, has been openly critical of Mueller’s investigation.
In 2017, before he took over the Justice Department, Barr wrote that he did not believe it had adequately examined government activities involving the Trump campaign. The next year, he wrote a memo to Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein attacking a legal theory that Mueller may have been pursuing.
After Mueller turned in his report, Barr released a four-page letter and then held an unusual news conference in which, critics said, he repeatedly mischaracterized its findings to put the president in a better light.
Mueller successfully prosecuted Trump’s campaign chairman, deputy campaign chairman, first national security advisor and a former campaign advisor on charges ranging from tax fraud to lying to investigators. He also charged 25 Russian military intelligence operatives and others on charges of stealing Democratic Party emails and sowing disinformation on social media.
Mueller ultimately concluded that the Trump campaign welcomed Russian help in the 2016 campaign but did not engage in a criminal conspiracy with the Kremlin.
Barr and Durham appear to be focusing, at least in part, on a complicated theory propagated by right-wing commentators who allege that U.S. intelligence agencies and foreign governments conspired to plant evidence to stymie Trump’s ascent to the White House.
They question whether a British-based Maltese professor, Joseph Mifsud, who helped kick-start the FBI’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the election, was secretly backed by U.S. intelligence agencies. In his report, Mueller wrote that Mifsud had “connections to Russia” and former FBI officials have described him as a Russian agent.
Mueller determined that Mifsud told a low-level Trump campaign advisor, George Papadopoulos, that Russia had dirt on Clinton. Papadopoulos subsequently told Australia’s ambassador in London that Russia was going to help the Trump campaign, and the envoy passed the information to the FBI.
The tip ended up launching a counterintelligence probe that ultimately became the Mueller investigation.
Papadopoulos, who pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents, admitted in federal court that he was aware that Mifsud “had substantial connections to Russian government officials.”
Papadopoulos now says he believes Mifsud was working for Italian intelligence and had been “weaponized” by the CIA. Trump defenders have suggested Mifsud was part of a “deep state” plot targeting the presidential candidate.
In recent trips overseas, Barr pressed top British and Italian law enforcement officials to help Durham in his investigation, according to Justice Department officials. At Barr’s request, the officials said, Trump also asked Australian leaders to assist in the investigation.
Less is known about a long-running investigation led by John Huber, the U.S. attorney in Utah. Then-Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions tasked Huber in November 2017 with exploring the origins of the Russia investigation as well as questions raised by conservatives about how the FBI handled investigations of Clinton’s use of a private email server and of the Clinton Foundation.
Justice Department officials have said Durham took over Huber’s work on the Russia probe. A department spokeswoman declined to discuss aspects of Huber’s inquiry that involve Clinton.
A former top Justice Department official from the George W. Bush administration said the focus on matters related to 2016, particularly those pressed by the president and his allies, has taken a toll at the Justice Department.
“Morale is in the tank,” the former official said.