(Bloomberg) -- The Justice Department’s investigation into what Attorney General William Barr has called “spying” in the 2016 presidential campaign is under renewed scrutiny after one of President Donald Trump’s top aides said U.S. aid to Ukraine was held up partly to force cooperation with that probe.
Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney told reporters Thursday that Trump delayed military assistance partly to prod Ukraine’s new President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to cooperate with “an ongoing investigation by our Department of Justice into the 2016 election.”
Mulvaney later recanted his affirmation of a quid pro quo for help pursuing Trump’s suspicion that he was the victim of a Democratic “witch hunt” with roots in Ukraine. But officials at the Justice Department were left angry and confused that Mulvaney dragged their already controversial investigation into the spotlight, indicating they had no idea what Mulvaney was referring to.
The comments have put an unwelcome spotlight on the already sensitive investigation that Barr opened in May and is being run by U.S. Attorney John Durham. Barr was criticized at the time by Democrats for saying he thinks Trump’s campaign was the victim of “spying,” which fits the president’s narrative that he was the victim of a “witch hunt” by anti-Trump forces in the Justice Department and FBI.
“Barr or Durham needs to say -- at a podium or in an attributed statement -- that they lack any interest in Ukraine and reject POTUS’s efforts to cloak his increasingly problematic Ukraine machinations in their investigation,” Jack Goldsmith, a former top Justice official, wrote on Twitter, invoking an acronym for the president of the U.S. “Otherwise investigation is hopelessly compromised.”
In a July 25 phone call that has become the center of the impeachment inquiry led by House Democrats, Trump told Zelenskiy that “whatever you can do with the attorney general” to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son “would be great.”
Trump also expressed interest in a hacked computer server that belonged to the Democratic National Committee. “The server, they say Ukraine has it,” Trump said according to a partial transcript of the call. Trump has cited an unsubstantiated conspiracy theory that Democrats and Ukrainians hacked into the server for their own purposes -- not Russia. U.S. intelligence agencies and Special Counsel Robert Mueller concluded Russian operatives broke in and released private emails to hurt the Democrats.
The investigation being run by Durham, the U.S. attorney based in New Haven, Connecticut, is largely secret, and there’s little clarity about what he’s examining. The Justice Department has said that he’s looking into whether there was any wrongdoing in U.S. counterintelligence activities before and after the 2016 election, especially with regard to Trump’s campaign.
Officials have declined to provide further details, including whether Durham is pursuing the unsubstantiated theory about the DNC server.
In an unusual move, Barr traveled to Rome twice in recent months to ask Italian intelligence officials for help with the probe. He also has talked with Australian and British officials to clear any obstacles to the review.
After Trump’s call with Zelenskiy became public, the Justice Department issued a statement saying that Durham “is exploring the extent to which a number of countries, including Ukraine, played a role in the counterintelligence investigation directed at the Trump campaign during the 2016 election.”
“While the attorney general has yet to contact Ukraine in connection with this investigation, certain Ukrainians who are not members of the government have volunteered information to Mr. Durham, which he is evaluating,” the department said.
Despite the Trump administration’s assertion that the president’s goal as to root out corruption in Ukraine, current and former officials said it’s telling that Trump volunteered Barr to help Zelenskiy, rather than the well-established resources of the FBI, which has an international corruption unit and a legal attache in Kyiv.
Barr also asked Trump to contact foreign leaders for help in Durham’s review, a move the department defended.
“Mr. Durham is gathering information from numerous sources, including a number of foreign countries,” spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said in a statement. “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.”
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