Attorney General William Barr decided to launch a criminal investigation into his own department after hearing taped testimony from a professor at the centre of the FBI’s Russia investigation.
The ‘breakthrough’ came on Barr’s second trip to Rome this summer, in which he and prosecutor John Durham are understood to have sat down and listened to a tape containing a deposition from academic Josef Mifsud.
Mifsud is alleged to have offered Trump adviser George Papadopoulos ‘dirt’ on Hillary Clinton in the form of emails in April 2016. When word of the meeting reached Washington, it provided the basis for what became the Mueller investigation.
Barr is now investigating Mifsud as part of a counter-investigation into how the Mueller probe – which found no clear evidence of collusion between Trump and the Russian government – got started.
The Washington Post writes that in Italy, people familiar with the matter said, Barr asked intelligence officials about Joseph Mifsud, (described as a a mysterious European professor) whose conversation with an adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign helped launch the FBI investigation into possible coordination with Russia.
Some conservatives have adopted an unproven theory that Mifsud was working to set up the Trump campaign when he boasted to campaign adviser George Papadopoulos about having “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails” — before Russia’s hacking of Democrats was publicly known. When the FBI learned of that conversation some months later, it opened a case.
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment except to say that Mr. Barr believed the nation’s foreign allies had been receptive and helpful.
Italian Prime Minister Conte said he never spoke directly with the attorney general, whose request came instead through “diplomatic channels,” but allowed Barr to speak with top Italian intelligence officials so they could clarify that they weren’t involved in the Russia probe.
Barr, Conte said, had a number of questions about Mr. Mifsud and his interactions with Mr. Papadopoulos. Mr. Conte characterized the request for information as “preliminary,” and said refusing to cooperate would have been viewed as disloyalty to a longtime ally.
Democrats have described Barr’s review as an effort to discredit Mr. Mueller’s probe, which didn’t find that Mr. Trump and his campaign conspired or coordinated with Russia to interfere in the election. It also detailed alleged efforts by the president to impede the investigation.