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DOJ Inquiry Into Origins Of The Russia Investigation Turns Into A Criminal Probe


The Justice Department has been reviewing the origins of its own investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election - how it started and why. NPR has learned that review is now a formal criminal probe. President Trump on the White House lawn today said the probe would turn up a lot of what he deemed really bad things.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I think you'll see things that nobody would have believed. This was the worst hoax in the history of our country.

CHANG: NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas joins us to explain what has happened and why it matters. Hey, Ryan.


CHANG: So tell us why it is significant that this review has become a criminal investigation.

LUCAS: Well, it means that the team of investigators working on this is now looking at a potential crime and not just a violation of department rules, which was the case when this was just a review. This means that the investigators conducting this can impanel a grand jury, can issue subpoenas to compel testimony and force people to turn over documents, and they could also, in the end, bring criminal charges.

But important ways - it's hard to say just how significant this development will turn out to be. There are no details on when the review turned into a criminal investigation or what prompted the change, and it's unclear what potential wrongdoing is being investigated. Those are all outstanding questions.

CHANG: OK, so this basically boils down to investigating the investigators right?


CHANG: So why did the attorney general decide that that was necessary?

LUCAS: Well, for a long time, Barr has expressed concerns about the Russia investigation and its origins. In April, he said in testimony on Capitol Hill that he believed the Trump campaign was, quote-unquote, "spied on." And a month later, he tapped a veteran prosecutor by the name of John Durham to look into the beginnings of the Russia investigation, to look into the activities of U.S. intelligence agencies and foreign intelligence services. That includes looking into whether U.S. intelligence agencies violated any rules in its surveillance of the Trump campaign.

Now, Barr's use of the term spying is not the typical, carefully crafted legal language that we expect from an attorney general. Instead, it mirrors the language that the president has used.

CHANG: Oh, interesting.

LUCAS: And remember - the president has attacked the FBI and the CIA. He's called for officials there to be locked up. Democrats and former Justice Department folks expressed a lot of concerns about the decision to review the Russia investigation. They questioned whether Barr was playing to the president.

CHANG: That said, Barr's decision to put John Durham, who's a well-regarded career prosecutor in charge of this whole review, that's seen as a positive move, right?

LUCAS: Right, right. And that's because Durham enjoys a lot of respect in the department and beyond. People that I've talked to who know him and have worked with him describe him as a straight shooter. They say he's not someone who's going to be intimidated or pushed around. He has the reputation of being an independent dogged investigator. He is the U.S. attorney for Connecticut, but he's been called in to handle politically sensitive investigations in the past for both Republican and Democratic administrations. That includes, for example, examining whether CIA employees broke the law in their abuse of terrorism suspects.

CHANG: Now, I understand that there are those who have some criticism of all this. But what is wrong with the Justice Department reviewing how the Russia investigation started in the first place?

LUCAS: You know, I've spoken with Republican lawmakers about that, and they have brought up the same question, even those who have seen the intelligence and say that they've seen nothing wrong. The counterpoint that Democrats make is that the Russia investigation has already been examined twice. The Justice Department inspector general has been looking into surveillance of the Trump campaign and other issues tied to the Russian investigation and the 2016 election. He's expected to put out a report on that soon.

Separately, the Senate Intelligence Committee, a bipartisan panel, already looked into the assessment that U.S. spy agencies made of Russian interference in the election. The committee agreed with the spy agency's conclusions, didn't flag any concerns. And that is, in part, why Democrats have raised concerns that Barr ordered the review, not for legal reasons but for political ones. And for Democrats, the fact that the review has been upgraded now to a criminal investigation only adds to their concerns.

CHANG: That's NPR's Ryan Lucas.

Thanks, Ryan.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.