William Barr personally asked foreign officials to aid inquiry into CIA, FBI activities in 2016

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WASHINGTON — Attorney General William Barr has held private meetings overseas with foreign intelligence officials, seeking their help in a Justice Department inquiry that President Donald Trump hopes will discredit U.S. intelligence agencies’ examination of possible connections between Russia and members of the Trump campaign during the 2016 election, according to people familiar with the matter.

Barr’s personal involvement is likely to stoke further criticism from Democrats pursuing impeachment that he is helping the Trump administration use executive branch powers to aid investigations aimed primarily at the president’s adversaries.

But the high-level Justice Department focus on intelligence operatives’ conduct will likely cheer Trump and other conservatives for whom “investigate the investigators” has become a rallying cry.

Barr has voiced his own concerns, telling lawmakers in April that he believed “spying did occur” when it came to the U.S. investigation of the Trump campaign.

The direct involvement of the nation’s top law enforcement official shows the priority Barr places on the investigation being conducted by John Durham, the U.S. attorney in Connecticut, who has been assigned the sensitive task of reviewing U.S. intelligence work surrounding the 2016 election and its aftermath.

The attorney general’s active role also underscores the degree to which a nearly three-year-old election still consumes significant resources and attention inside the federal government. Current and former intelligence and law enforcement officials expressed frustration and alarm Monday that the head of the Justice Department was taking such a direct role in re-examining what they view as conspiracy theories and baseless allegations of misconduct.

Barr has already made overtures to British intelligence officials, and last week the attorney general traveled to Italy, where he and Durham met senior Italian government officials and Barr asked the Italians to assist Durham, according to one person familiar with the matter. It was not Barr’s first trip to Italy to meet intelligence officials, the person said. The Trump administration has made similar requests of Australia, these people said.

In a recent phone call, Trump urged Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to provide assistance to the ongoing Justice Department inquiry, according to a person familiar with the matter. Trump made the request at Barr’s urging, people familiar with the matter said.

Trump administration officials defended the moves as above board.

White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said: “I’m old enough to remember when Democrats actually wanted to find out what happened in the 2016 election. The Democrats clearly don’t want the truth to come out anymore as it might hurt them politically, but this call relates to a DOJ inquiry publicly announced months ago to uncover exactly what happened. The DOJ simply requested the President provide introductions to facilitate that ongoing inquiry, and he did so, that’s all.”

Kerri Kupec, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said, “Mr. Durham is gathering information from numerous sources, including a number of foreign countries. At Attorney General Barr’s request, the President has contacted other countries to ask them to introduce the Attorney General and Mr. Durham to appropriate officials.”

In a statement, an Australian government spokesperson said it has “always been ready to assist and cooperate with efforts that help shed further light on the matters under investigation. The [prime minister] confirmed this readiness once again in a conversation with the President.”

Trump still complains frequently that those involved in the investigation of his campaign should be charged with crimes.

That investigation ended earlier this year when special counsel Robert Mueller determined there was insufficient evidence to charge any Americans with conspiring with Russia, and declined to reach a decision about whether the president had sought to obstruct justice.

David Laufman, a former Justice Department official who was involved in the early stages of the Russia probe, said it was “fairly unorthodox for the attorney general personally to be flying around the world as a point person to further evidence-gathering for a specific Justice Department investigation,” and especially so in Barr’s case.

“Even if one questions, as a threshold matter, the propriety of conducting a re-investigation of the Justice Department’s own prior investigation of Russia’s interference, the appointment of John Durham — a seasoned, nonpartisan prosecutor — provided some reason to believe that it would be handled in a professional, nonpartisan manner,” Laufman said. “But if the attorney general is essentially running this investigation, that entire premise is out the window.”

A spokesperson for the CIA declined to comment, citing the ongoing review.

A former senior U.S. intelligence official denied the CIA was involved in monitoring any members of the Trump campaign.

Any such operations were conducted by the FBI and were lawful, the former official said, emphasizing that the CIA focused on Russia’s interference in the election, and the role that Russian officials and intelligence agencies played.

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