Attorney General William Barr has told Justice Department officials that he is skeptical of a conclusion by the department’s inspector general that the FBI had sufficient information to open the investigation into whether any Trump associates conspired with Russia during the 2016 presidential race, according to two people familiar with the conversations, The New York Times reported.
Should Barr rebut the inspector general’s assessment, due out next week in a highly anticipated report, Trump’s allies will most likely use that pushback to dismiss the work itself. The review is expected to contradict some of the unfounded theories about the 2016 election that the president and his allies have promoted, the Times adds.
Barr’s doubts are significant because they could be perceived as the nation’s top law enforcement officer siding with Trump, who has long cast doubt on the legitimacy of the Russia investigation, over law enforcement officials.
His views are sure to inflame critics of Barr, who have accused him of siding with the President over the rule of law in his handling of the special counsel’s findings and in a recent speech in which he defended Trump’s use of executive authority. While it is a part of the executive branch, the Justice Department has typically sought to maintain some independence from the White House to guarantee that justice is applied fairly and not wielded as a political cudgel.
Barr’s skepticism could place more pressure on John H. Durham, the federal prosecutor who is conducting a separate criminal inquiry into the roots of the Russia investigation, to find evidence backing Barr’s position. Durham has already unearthed some evidence that supports Barr’s uncertainty of the inspector general’s findings, according to a lawyer involved in the Durham inquiry.
The attorney general has also expressed skepticism at the FBI’s decision to investigate Trump’s own ties to Russia and whether he obstructed justice. It is unclear whether the report by the inspector general, Michael E. Horowitz, will address that.
Barr has privately praised Horowitz for his work and has not made clear whether he will publicly disagree with the report. It is standard practice for the Justice Department to submit to the inspector general a written response to his findings, which is then included in the final assessment. Barr could use that opportunity to issue a formal rebuttal, or he could make a public statement of some other kind.