The prosecutor handpicked by Attorney General William P. Barr to scrutinize how U.S. agencies investigated President Trump’s 2016 campaign said he could not offer evidence to the Justice Department’s inspector general to support the suspicions of some conservatives that the case was a setup by American intelligence, people familiar with the matter said.
Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s office contacted U.S. Attorney John Durham, the prosecutor Barr personally tapped to lead a separate review of the 2016 probe into possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia, the people said. The inspector general also contacted several U.S. intelligence agencies.
Among Horowitz’s questions: whether a Maltese professor who interacted with a Trump campaign adviser was actually a U.S. intelligence asset deployed to ensnare the campaign, the people said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the inspector general’s findings have not been made public.
But the intelligence agencies said the professor was not among their assets, the people said. And Durham informed Horowitz’s office that his investigation had not produced any evidence that might contradict the inspector general’s findings on that point.
Spokespeople for the inspector general’s office, Durham and the Justice Department declined to comment.
The previously unreported interaction with Durham is noted in a draft of Horowitz’s forthcoming report on the Russia investigation, which concludes that the FBI had adequate cause to launch its Russia investigation, people familiar with the matter said. Its public release is set for Monday.
That could rebut conservatives’ doubts — which Barr has shared with associates in recent weeks — that Horowitz might be blessing the FBI’s Russia investigation prematurely and that Durham could potentially find more, particularly with regard to the Maltese professor.
The draft, though, is not final. The inspector general has yet to release any conclusions, and The Washington Post has not reviewed Horowitz’s entire report, even in draft form. It is also unclear whether Durham has shared the entirety of his findings and evidence with the inspector general or merely answered a specific question.
Trump and his allies have relentlessly criticized the FBI probe, which was taken over by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, as a “witch hunt” and pushed for investigations of those who launched it. They have been eagerly anticipating the release of Horowitz’s report in hopes the watchdog with a nonpartisan reputation might validate their attacks.
Barr told CBS News in May that some of the facts he had learned about the Russia case “don’t hang together with the official explanations of what happened.” He declined to be more specific. In response to recent reports about Barr’s skepticism about the forthcoming inspector general report, Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said in a statement that the watchdog’s investigation “is a credit to the Department of Justice.”
“His excellent work has uncovered significant information that the American people will soon be able to read for themselves,” Kupec said. “Rather than speculating, people should read the report for themselves next week, watch the Inspector General’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and draw their own conclusions about these important matters.”
Horowitz’s draft report concludes that political bias did not taint how top FBI officials running the investigation handled the case, people familiar with the matter said. But it details troubling misconduct that Trump and his allies are likely to emphasize as they criticize the bureau.
Justice Dept. watchdog finds political bias did not taint top officials running the FBI’s Russia probe but documents errors
In particular, Horowitz’s team found omissions in the FBI’s applications to renew warrants from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to monitor former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, people familiar with the matter said.
The applications relied at least in part on information provided by Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence officer who was hired to investigate Trump by an opposition research firm working for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
Relying on a network of sources and subsources, Steele claimed he had information on connections between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. He passed that information to the FBI.
When FBI agents interviewed one of Steele’s subsources, they found Steele’s information — which he had said was raw intelligence in need of further investigation — was not entirely reliable, people familiar with the matter said. And Horowitz determined in the draft of his report that the FBI failed to convey as much in some of the later applications to surveil Page, the people said.
Those omissions, while significant, were apparently not so egregious as to convince Horowitz to conclude that the renewal applications should have been rejected. It would be unusual for the inspector general to sit in judgment over the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court’s determinations, because his job is to review how the information was gathered and presented to the court, not whether the FISA court should have approved or rejected specific applications.
Horowitz also found that a low-level FBI lawyer, Kevin Clinesmith, doctored an email that was used as part of the warrant application process — potentially significant misconduct that Durham is now exploring as a possible crime, people familiar with the matter said.
Clinesmith, who has not responded to inquiries about the inspector general’s findings, is a familiar name to Republicans critical of the FBI. In a previous report on the FBI’s investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state, Horowitz found that the lawyer sent messages suggesting a dislike of Trump, including one saying “Viva le resistance.”
When questioned by the inspector general about such messages, Clinesmith said that many of them were jokes and that he did not let his political views affect his work. A draft of Horowitz’s report criticizes as careless another low-level FBI agent who had some involvement in the Russia probe, the people said, though the exact reasons for that remain unclear.
Horowitz’s report addresses in detail the cause — referred to in law enforcement circles as “predication” — for opening the Russia investigation. The bureau did so after the Australian government passed to the United States a tip that George Papadopoulos, a Trump campaign aide, had boasted about Russia having political dirt on Clinton.
The boasts came before it was publicly known the Kremlin had hacked Democratic emails and stolen information that might be damaging to Clinton’s campaign. Papadopoulos had been told of the possible dirt by Joseph Mifsud, the Maltese professor.
U.S. officials have long said that they were duty bound to follow up on what seemed to be an alarming tip. The standard for opening an investigation is low. FBI officials need only an “articulable factual basis” to believe there has been possible criminal activity or a threat to national security. U.S. officials suspect that Mifsud has ties to Russian intelligence.
Papadopoulos, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his interactions with Mifsud, has alleged, though, that he believes Mifsud is some type of Western intelligence asset and that he was set up.
People familiar with the matter said Horowitz queried U.S. intelligence agencies to determine whether there was any truth to that claim and found no evidence Mifsud was a U.S. asset. He also reached out to Durham to see whether the prosecutor had found anything that might contradict that assessment, and Durham said he had no such evidence, people familiar with the matter said.
Barr has seemed in recent months to take a keen interest in Mifsud, a shadowy figure who last surfaced two years ago for an interview with a reporter in Italy. The attorney general has had private meetings with foreign intelligence officials to ask for their assistance in the Durham investigation, and he has asked the Italian government, in particular, about their knowledge of the professor. Italian officials told him they had no involvement in the matter.
It was not immediately clear whether Horowitz has examined possible ties between Mifsud and other Western governments outside the United States, though people familiar with the draft of his report said it does not lend credence to Papadopoulos’s allegation about the professor.
Barr could formally object to any of Horowitz’s assertions — though he could not order the independent watchdog to change anything — as the draft of the inspector general’s report is being finalized. In recent weeks, witnesses have given Horowitz input on changes they feel are necessary.
The Justice Department typically offers a written response and sometimes objects to the conclusions of its inspector general — though generally that occurs when the watchdog is alleging misconduct and the department feels it has to defend itself, rather than when the inspector general plans to clear the department or the FBI of wrongdoing. Barr also could decline to formally weigh in but publicly air his skepticism later, perhaps in a media interview.