Justice Department review into origins of Russia probe turns into criminal investigation

Julia Ainsley and Phil Helsel
The Russian and American flags flying side by side.
Mashabuba | Getty | Getty Images

A probe by Attorney General William Barr into the origins of the Russia investigation has changed from an administrative review into a criminal investigation, a person familiar with the review confirmed to NBC News.

The review is being conducted by Connecticut U.S. Attorney John Durham. The New York Times first reported Thursday that the administrative review has turned into a criminal investigation.

It's not clear when the change occurred, but the probe began in May as an administrative review.

The Times reported that the change in status gives Durham the power to subpoena witness testimony and documents, to impanel a grand jury and to file criminal charges.

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President Donald Trump has repeatedly called the Russia investigation conducted by special counsel Robert Mueller a "witch hunt."

Republicans have suggested the investigation stemmed from a plot by members of the Obama Administration and career intelligence officials, in what they call the "Deep State," to undermine Trump.

The FBI began investigating Russian election interference in July 2016. The firing of FBI Director James Comey led to the appointment of Mueller as special counsel in May 2017.

Ultimately, Mueller did not establish that the Trump campaign coordinated with the Russian election interference effort, although he documented dozens of what critics say were inappropriate contacts between Trump aides and Russians.

Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department inspector general, has conducted an investigation into the FBI's actions in launching the Russia probe.

But Barr has said he believes an IG inquiry is not sufficient to answer the questions he has about how the investigation began. In doing so, he made comments suggesting Durham had authority only a criminal investigation could provide.

Barr was criticized after he released a brief account of the Mueller report in March that critics said was inaccurate. Mueller in a letter and phone call said that Barr's four-page description what Barr called the report's principal conclusions did not fully capture the context and substance of the more than 440-page document.

That the administrative review into the origins of the Mueller probe has turned into a criminal investigation could raise alarms that President Donald Trump is using the Justice Department to go after his perceived enemies, the Times reported.

Democrats in the House are conducting an impeachment inquiry into Trump that centers on alleged attempts to pressure the president of Ukraine to announce investigations into what has been described as a conspiracy theory about interference in the 2016 election, as well as into former vice president Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.

Critics say that alleged pressure amounts to Trump using withheld foreign aid and the power of the presidency to advance his own political interests, inviting a foreign power to again interfere with the U.S. presidential election.