Justice Department praises watchdog's upcoming report on Russia inquiry amid reported criticism by Attorney General Barr

Kevin Johnson and Kristine Phillips, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON – The Justice Department late Monday lauded an upcoming report by the agency's inspector general that is expected to conclude that the FBI's surveillance of a Trump campaign aide was legal.

"The inspector general’s investigation is a credit to the Department of Justice," said Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec of the report, which is set for release Dec. 9. "His excellent work has uncovered significant information that the American people will soon be able to read for themselves."

Her statement comes in the wake of a Monday night report that Attorney General William Barr has expressed disagreement with a key finding by Inspector General Michael Horowitz: that the FBI had sufficient basis to launch an investigation into members of the Trump campaign.

The Justice Department statement did not refer to that report by The Washington Post, but it urged the American people to "draw their own conclusions."

"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," Kupec said in the written statement.

Horowitz is scheduled to testify about the report's findings before the Senate panel on Dec. 11.

President Donald Trump and his Republican allies have trumpeted the report, with the president claiming it would prove the FBI abused its authority. The report is not expected to support his claim.

The president has repeatedly asserted that the inquiry into Russia's interference in the 2016 election was a "witch hunt" orchestrated by political enemies. As the report's release has drawn near, Trump has stepped up the rhetoric. In an interview on "Fox and Friends" last week, he accused the FBI of "spying on my campaign."

Horowitz's report will be made public amid a fast-moving impeachment inquiry into allegations that Trump withheld military aid to Ukraine in order to pressure its government to open an investigation into the family of Democratic rival and former Vice President Joe Biden.

And it comes amid criticism from Democrats that the Justice Department, under Barr's leadership, has become a tool against the president's political enemies. 

Release of the inspector general's report follows revelations in October that a related – and equally politically charged – examination of the origins of the Russia investigation has shifted to a criminal probe.

The inspector general's review centered on the FBI's surveillance of former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page during the early stages of its investigation into Russian interference and possible ties to the Trump campaign.

Horowitz launched his review in March 2018 in response to requests from lawmakers and then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The inspector general looked into whether the FBI violated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, when it sought a judge's permission to wiretap Page.

Page, who had longstanding connections to Russia, admitted meeting with Kremlin officials in July 2016, when he was the Trump campaign's foreign policy adviser. 

Horowitz also examined the FBI's relationship and communication with Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence officer. He was hired by a research firm working for the campaign of then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, and he compiled a now-infamous "dossier" alleging links between Russia and the Trump campaign. 

Republicans have complained that the FBI, in its applications to seek and renew surveillance on Page, concealed its reliance on Steele's findings. But copies of those applications released after USA TODAY and others sued showed FBI investigators did disclose to judges that Steele sought information to "discredit" Trump, and investigators had broader suspicions about Page's ties to the Russian government.

The counterintelligence investigation was launched in the summer of 2016, after the FBI learned that another campaign aide, George Papadopoulos, boasted to an Australian diplomat that Russia had offered the Trump campaign damaging information about Clinton.

Investigators also determined that Russian intelligence had stolen troves of emails from the Democratic National Committee. Papadopoulos' boast came before the Russian intrusions were publicly known.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller took over the FBI's investigation in May 2017 and indicted three dozen individuals and entities, including six former Trump associates and campaign aides – all of whom have either pleaded guilty or been convicted by a jury.

Mueller's report detailed a "sweeping and systematic" effort by the Russian government to intercede in the election to help Trump win, but concluded neither the president nor his campaign conspired with Russians. The report, however, portrayed the campaign as an eager beneficiary of Russian efforts. 

In April, shortly before the Justice Department released a redacted version of Mueller's report, Barr told lawmakers he would conduct a separate examination of how the Russia investigation began and whether the government improperly "spied" on the Trump campaign.

Barr's announcement came amid Trump's escalating battle against the law enforcement and intelligence agencies that investigated him and his campaign. 

The president and his allies have long alleged that FBI officials were biased against him and spied on his campaign to damage him politically. The upcoming report from the inspector general is not expected to support Trump's claim that the investigation was politically motivated.

Trump has also accused law enforcement and intelligence officials of treason.

Barr tapped Connecticut U.S. Attorney John Durham to lead that inquiry. Durham has led high-profile special investigations, such as an examination of the FBI's handling of criminal informants in Boston during the Clinton administration.

Barr has personally overseen the inquiry, seeking assistance from law enforcement partners around the globe. 

Former law enforcement officials have dismissed accusations of spying and treason, saying the surveillance of Page wasn't unusual.

"There was no conspiracy to unseat Mr. Trump or defeat him. There was no treason. There was no sedition," James Baker said in May. He's the FBI's former general counsel and oversaw the launch of the Russia investigation. 

Former FBI director James Comey has echoed this sentiment. In a Washington Post op-ed, he wrote that the FBI properly investigated whether Americans associated with the Trump campaign conspired with Russians.

In a separate report released in August, the inspector general concluded that Comey, whom Trump abruptly fired two years ago, broke Justice Department policy by disclosing the contents of confidential memos detailing his interactions with Trump. 

Last year, Horowitz released a scathing review of the FBI investigation into Clinton's use of a private email server when she was secretary of state.

The 568-page report rebuked Comey's handling of the investigation and acknowledged "troubling" text messages between two former FBI officials that disparaged Trump, then a presidential candidate. But Horowitz said his examination did not find evidence that political bias affected the investigators' actions.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: DOJ lauds upcoming inspector general report on Russia investigation

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