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DOJ Opens Criminal Inquiry Into Origins Of Russia Probe


For months now, the Justice Department has been reviewing the origins of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. That is, of course, the investigation that became the Mueller probe. Well, now that administrative review has shifted gears into a criminal investigation.

And to find out more about that, let's turn to NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas. Hi there, Ryan.


GREENE: OK. So what's it mean that this review is now criminal?

LUCAS: First off, a person familiar with the matter has confirmed that this is indeed now a criminal investigation. There are no details on when that change was made or what prompted it. They are investigating a potential crime, not just a violation of department rules or regulations.

That said, in this instance, it's unclear right now what potential crime they are investigating. But with this being a criminal investigation, the prosecutor who is leading this - a man by the name of John Durham - can impanel a grand jury, can issue grand jury subpoenas to get testimony and to force people to turn over documents.

GREENE: I mean, this is obviously very complicated. Take us back - I mean, we all remember the Mueller probe into possible collusion, Russian interference, all of that. Why was a review into the origins of that probe launched in the first place?

LUCAS: So back in April, Attorney General William Barr said that he had concerns about the Russia investigation. He said he believed that spying did occur on the Trump campaign back in 2016. He acknowledged that he didn't have any specific evidence but said that he had concerns. And so a month later, he appointed Durham to look into the origins of the Russia probe and whether the intelligence community violated any rules in its surveillance of the Trump campaign.

Now, Durham is the U.S. attorney for Connecticut. He's widely respected. He's been tapped by attorney generals in both Republican and Democratic administrations in the past to handle sensitive investigations. Democrats and former Justice Department folks though have expressed concern about Barr's decision to look into this and whether he may, in fact, be doing the president's bidding. But Durham was seen as an independent guy, as somebody who would lend credibility to this and someone who would focus on the facts.

GREENE: OK. So one of the concerns expressed is whether the DOJ is doing the president's bidding. You say that Durham is an independent guy. But I mean, this is essentially DOJ investigating itself, right, I mean, which also has to raise some questions doesn't it?

LUCAS: It raises questions. And there are concerns about this investigation, but not necessarily because it's the Justice Department investigating itself. It's more that these issues were already being looked into by the Justice Department's inspector general who is an independent actor. He is expected to release a report on surveillance of the Trump campaign soon.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has looked into the assessment that U.S. spy agencies made of Russian interference in the 2016 election. That committee - bipartisan committee - agreed with that assessment, didn't flag any concerns.

All of this has fueled concerns though that Barr ordered this review for political reasons rather than legal concerns. That's because some of it echoes conspiracy theories that President Trump has long pushed.

We know that Barr has taken an active role in the Durham matter. He's traveled, for example, to Rome with Durham to talk to Italian officials. And the news that this is now a criminal investigation, and the timing of that news coming out now, only deepens those concerns.

We saw last night the Democratic chairman of the House Judiciary and intelligence committees put out a statement highlighting that, saying that it raises profound new concerns that the Justice Department under Barr has become a vehicle for the president's political revenge; that's what they said.

GREENE: All right. NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas for us this morning. Thanks, Ryan.

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

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.