AP NEWS

Trump looks beyond DOJ watchdog’s Russia report

December 3, 2019
FILE - In this July 25, 2019, file photo, President Donald Trump reviews the troops during a full honors welcoming ceremony for Secretary of Defense Mark Esper at the Pentagon in Washington. If there was one day that crystallized all the forces that led to the impeachment investigation of President Donald Trump, it was July 25. That was the day of his phone call with Ukraine’s new leader, pressing him for a political favor. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)
FILE - In this July 25, 2019, file photo, President Donald Trump reviews the troops during a full honors welcoming ceremony for Secretary of Defense Mark Esper at the Pentagon in Washington. If there was one day that crystallized all the forces that led to the impeachment investigation of President Donald Trump, it was July 25. That was the day of his phone call with Ukraine’s new leader, pressing him for a political favor. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump on Tuesday said he expected an upcoming watchdog report to be “devastating” on the origins of the Russia investigation that dogged his presidency for nearly two years, but also suggested Americans should really be more interested in the findings of a federal prosecutor appointed to do a similar probe.

Speaking to reporters in London, Trump said the “big report” on the Russia investigation will come from U.S. Attorney John Durham, who was appointed by Attorney General William Barr in July to lead the inquiry into the origins of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election. It’s not clear when that probe will be completed.

But the Justice Department’s inspector general is scheduled to release a report on Monday on the early stages of the FBI’s Russia investigation.

The president’s comments could mean that Monday’s report, centered in part on the use of a secret surveillance warrant to monitor the communications of Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, wouldn’t be a full-throated confirmation of his allegations that the Russia probe was a politically-motivated “witch hunt.” Republicans could instead play up that Durham’s inquiry is far from done, and could uncover wrongdoing that the inspector general wasn’t examining.

“I do think the big report to wait for is going to be the Durham report,” Trump said. “That’s the one that people are really waiting for.”

Trump’s remarks come a day after The Washington Post reported that Barr told associates he disagrees with a finding from the inspector general’s upcoming report that the FBI was justified in July 2016 in opening a counterintelligence investigation into members of the Trump campaign. The newspaper, citing unidentified people familiar with the matter, reported that Barr had not been swayed by Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s rationale for concluding that the FBI had a good enough reason to open the investigation that would become the special counsel’s probe.

While the president said the inspector general’s report was also very important, and that he’s heard “it’s devastating,” the watchdog is limited in what he was examining, and Durham has a wider investigative scope. The inspector general does not have the power to compel former employees to be interviewed.

Durham is conducting a criminal investigation examining what led the U.S. to open a counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign and the roles that various countries played in the U.S. probe. He is also investigating whether the surveillance methods and intelligence gathering methods used during the investigation were legal and appropriate. Durham, the U.S. attorney in Connecticut, is a career prosecutor who has led investigations into the FBI’s cozy relationship with Boston mobsters like James “Whitey” Bulger and the CIA’s use of tough interrogation techniques on terrorism suspects.

The FBI’s counterintelligence investigation later morphed into special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. Mueller concluded that the Russian government interfered in the 2016 election, but his investigation didn’t find sufficient evidence to establish a criminal conspiracy between Trump’s campaign and Russia. Mueller also examined 10 possible instances of obstruction of justice and has pointedly said he could not exonerate the president.

The inspector general uncovered that an FBI lawyer is suspected of altering a document related to surveillance of Page, according to a person familiar with the case who was not authorized to discuss the matter by name and spoke to AP only on the condition of anonymity. The inspector general cannot bring criminal charges, but can make referrals to federal prosecutors if potential crimes are uncovered.

Trump and his supporters are likely to seize on any findings of mistakes or bad judgment in the report to support their claims of a biased investigation. Supporters of the FBI, meanwhile, are likely to hold up as vindication any findings that the investigation was done by the book, or free of political considerations.

The Justice Department has no plan to submit a formal rebuttal as part of the inspector general’s report, a person familiar with the matter told The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations surrounding the report.

The attorney general has taken a hands-on role in leading the Durham investigation and has traveled overseas with Durham for personal meetings with foreign law enforcement officials, some of which were initiated by Trump. The president has asked the Australian prime minister and other foreign leaders to help Barr with the Durham investigation.

Trump’s interactions with foreign leaders — and Barr’s role in those discussions — have received heightened scrutiny as the House conducts an impeachment inquiry into the president’s efforts to press the leader of Ukraine to investigate Democratic rival Joe Biden at the same time as military aid was being withheld from the country.

The report from the intelligence committee on the House impeachment inquiry was made public Tuesday.

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Associated Press writer Eric Tucker contributed to this report.