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Attorney general sharpens attacks on FBI’s Russia probe, dismaying some in his own department

Attorney General William Barr said Dec. 10 the FBI may have acted in "bad faith" when it investigated possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. (Video: Reuters)

Attorney General William P. Barr on Tuesday dramatically intensified his attacks on the FBI’s 2016 investigation into the Trump campaign — asserting that the bureau opened the probe without good reason, pursued the case even after it had collapsed and might have acted in bad faith.

In two media interviews, the top U.S. law enforcement official launched a broadside against his predecessors who handled one of the most sensitive investigations in FBI history, rejecting an assessment from the Justice Department’s internal watchdog that the case was opened with appropriate cause, not out of political animus.

His comments drew condemnations from some involved in the case, and those inside the Justice Department privately worried he might be undercutting faith in federal law enforcement to please the president. The remarks notably came after President Trump had criticized the FBI director, Christopher A. Wray, on Twitter.

“I think our nation was turned on its head for three years based on a completely bogus narrative that was largely fanned and hyped by a completely irresponsible press,” Barr told NBC News. “I think there were gross abuses . . . and inexplicable behavior that is intolerable in the FBI.”

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Barr’s sentiments echo Trump’s most strident attacks on the investigation into whether his campaign coordinated with Russia in 2016, and could help the commander in chief portray himself as unfairly targeted as he seeks reelection in 2020.

In rejecting Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s assessment about the adequate origins of the case, Barr said the final and more thoroughly considered word would be that of John Durham, the U.S. attorney in Connecticut whom he hand-selected to perform a similar review.

Top republicans made a slew of false claims about the inspector general's report on the Russia investigation. (Video: The Washington Post)

Barr told NBC News that Durham’s review could reach an “important watershed” in the late spring or early summer — just as the presidential campaigns are intensifying ahead of the election in November.

“He is bringing to bear, in all of his conduct here, a perspective on the law that the president is all-powerful and should be able to do pretty much whatever he wants,” said Donald B. Ayer, who preceded Barr as deputy attorney general in the George H.W. Bush administration. “And I think we’re not done yet. It seems likely that Barr will do some pretty bad things with whatever facts Durham finds, by viewing them through the lens of his twisted concept of executive power.”

A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment.

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Barr spoke with NBC News, and later at the Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council, a day after Horowitz released his long-anticipated report. The report rebutted conservatives’ most serious allegations, including that the bureau opened the case inappropriately and out of political bias. But Horowitz also found serious faults in how the FBI applied for court permission to monitor a former Trump campaign adviser as the investigation progressed.

According to a White House official, Trump had wanted his allies in government to amplify sections of the report by the inspector general, and was apparently disappointed when Wray emphasized some portions that were favorable to the FBI even as he promised reforms.

“I don’t know what report current Director of the FBI Christopher A. Wray was reading, but it sure wasn’t the one given to me,” Trump tweeted Tuesday morning. “With that kind of attitude, he will never be able to fix the FBI, which is badly broken despite having some of the greatest men & women working there!”

Barr told NBC News he had confidence in the FBI director. But he seemed to stand at odds with Wray — disputing aspects of the report that were exonerating for the FBI, while emphasizing the malfeasance the Justice Department watchdog had uncovered.

“It was a travesty, and there were many abuses,” he said of the Russia case at the Wall Street Journal event. “From day one, it generated exculpatory information and nothing that substantiated any kind of collusion.”

Trump lashes out at FBI director in wake of Justice Department inspector general’s report

When Trump decided to nominate Barr as his attorney general nearly a year ago, many in the Justice Department cheered the move. Barr had been deputy attorney general and attorney general in the George H.W. Bush administration, and he was not well-known to Trump.

While Barr had long believed strongly in the power of the presidency, those inside the department hoped he would not be blindly loyal to Trump, who had made a habit of encroaching on the Justice Department’s historic independence inside the executive branch.

Barr, though, has proved to be one of the president’s most effective allies — to the surprise of many who thought he would force a return to tradition. Those inside the department say they privately worry his latest comments could have real consequences.

“He seems a lot more of a Kool-Aid drinker than I expected,” said one Justice Department employee, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer frank assessments of the attorney general. “Once you start eroding public confidence in the bureau, that’s got an impact on our ability to get convictions in our cases.”

Added another: “It’s this internal debate, ‘Am I violating my own principles by staying here and working under this set of conditions? Or am I . . . somebody who should stay so when this nightmare is over, we can just start putting the pieces back together?’”

Post Reports: The fight over the FBI’s Russia probe

Richard Cullen, a friend of Barr’s and a former U.S. attorney, said Barr has “never been afraid to say exactly what he thinks.” Barr’s defenders note, too, that he was merely highlighting serious wrongdoing in the Russia case, rather than attacking any current officials.

“I don’t think anybody should extrapolate general conclusions about Bill’s attitude and approach to the institution he leads, because that situation is truly, completely unprecedented,” said George J. Terwilliger III, who worked with Barr in the Justice Department in the George H.W. Bush administration.

Others, though, noted that it was especially unusual for the attorney general to invite more criticism from the Justice Department watchdog.

Matthew Axelrod, a former senior Justice Department official during the Obama administration, called Barr’s remarks “a shockingly inappropriate departure from normal.”

“By undercutting the comprehensive work of the independent inspector general and spouting White House talking points, AG Barr is eroding public confidence that he is acting in the best interests of the institution he leads,” Axelrod said.

Barr issued a statement soon after the inspector general’s report was released Monday, disputing aspects of it and criticizing the Russia probe. Durham also issued a statement in response to the inspector general report noting that his office disagreed “with some of the report’s conclusions as to predication and how the FBI case was opened.”

David Laufman, a former Justice Department national security official involved in the Russia case, said Barr’s comments were “not entirely unexpected,” given some of his past conduct in the job.

“What was unexpected, however, was the corresponding issuance of a press release by U.S. Attorney John Durham, amidst a pending criminal investigation, seemingly aimed at undermining the validity of the IG’s key finding regarding the predication of the counterintelligence investigation,” Laufman said.

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The FBI had opened the Russia investigation in July 2016, after receiving information from an Australian diplomat who alleged that George Papadopoulos, a Trump campaign aide, had “suggested the Trump team had received some kind of suggestion from Russia” that Moscow could anonymously release damaging information about former secretary of state Hillary Clinton.

By the Australians’ telling, Papadopoulos had made that claim before it was publicly known that Russia had hacked Democratic emails, which it would release during the campaign. The tip, though vague, was viewed as a “tipping point,” former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe told inspector general investigators, and bureau leaders felt they had no choice but to open a case.

Horowitz agreed in his report that the FBI had an “authorized purpose” to initiate an investigation, and he did not find evidence to support the allegation, made by Trump and his Republican allies, that the decision was driven by bias.

Barr asserted in the interviews that he felt the FBI was using a “suggestion of a suggestion” to initiate a full investigation, and officials there seemed to have the idea that Papadopoulos’s comment “must reflect preknowledge of the hack.” He said that was “a bridge too far,” because the campaign adviser could have been passing along speculation that Russia had hacked the private server Clinton used while she was secretary of state.

“The proper response,” Barr said, “was to talk to the campaign.”

In the intervening months, the FBI would use informants to try to talk to Trump campaign advisers and — starting in October 2016 — apply for a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court warrant to monitor Carter Page, then a former Trump campaign adviser. The inspector general found serious omissions and other faults in those applications.

Barr cast the errors as especially sinister — using terminology likely to make those in law enforcement bristle. As he has in the past, he again asserted that the Trump campaign was “clearly spied upon.” Wray and other law enforcement leaders have said they would not use that term to describe court-approved surveillance activities.

He also alleged that, even as the bureau turned up exculpatory — rather than incriminatory — information, officials kept it from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and pressed ahead with their investigation. He highlighted that the inspector general had found a lack of satisfactory explanations for some of the FBI’s failures, and said that left open the possibility “to infer bad faith.”

“When their entire case collapsed, what did they do?” Barr said. “They kept on investigating the president, well into his administration.”

The FBI’s investigation would ultimately be taken over by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. Mueller found “numerous links” between those tied to the Russian government and those tied to the Trump campaign, but decided the evidence was “not sufficient to charge that any member of the Trump Campaign conspired with representatives of the Russian government to interfere in the 2016 election.”

Barr has previously faced criticism from the political left for mischaracterizing Mueller’s findings before they were publicly released in a way that closely hewed to Trump’s long-held talking points about the case.

Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.