WASHINGTON — The Justice Department’s examination of the investigations into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election has cleared the C.I.A. of suspicions that it targeted President Trump and his associates, Attorney General William P. Barr said in an interview published on Friday.
“The C.I.A. stayed in its lane” and he did not “see any sign of improper C.I.A. activity,” Mr. Barr told the conservative Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberley A. Strassel. His comments made more explicit his disclosure this month that the investigation by John H. Durham, a prosecutor whom Mr. Barr appointed as a special counsel in the case, had narrowed to focus on the F.B.I.
Mr. Barr stopped short of fully absolving the C.I.A.; he confirmed that Mr. Durham was reviewing the early 2017 assessment by the agency and other parts of the intelligence community that concluded that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia had favored Mr. Trump over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election.
Mr. Barr has drawn criticism for his previous uses of the term “spying” to describe investigative activities, though he has applied it more generally to the F.B.I.’s Russia investigation than to the C.I.A.’s scrutiny of the Kremlin’s 2016 election interference campaign. Mr. Barr reserved harsh judgment for the F.B.I.’s investigation, calling parts of it “outrageous.”
Mr. Barr, who will depart office next week, sought to burnish his legacy in the interview. He has been widely criticized for his interventions in cases involving Mr. Trump’s associates, his portrayal of the Mueller report that a judge called “distorted” and “misleading” and other efforts to advance the president’s political agenda, but he insisted he was an impartial arbiter of justice who stopped the Justice Department from being used as a “political weapon.”
Mr. Barr said he had planned to stay on as attorney general if Mr. Trump had won re-election but his relationship with the mercurial president had frayed at times, making his continued role as the nation’s top law enforcement officer tenuous.
Mr. Barr did not assert that election fraud had played a role in Mr. Trump’s election loss and brushed off the president’s repeated criticisms that he should have disclosed a federal investigation into President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s son Hunter, which would have violated Justice Department guidelines.
While apparently clearing the C.I.A. of any wrongdoing, Mr. Barr has been deeply skeptical of the F.B.I.’s reasoning for opening a counterintelligence investigation in July 2016 into whether any Trump campaign associates were secretly conspiring with Russia to tip the election in Mr. Trump’s favor.
The investigation should never have been opened, Mr. Barr said. “The idea that this was done with the collusion of the Trump campaign — there was never any evidence. It was entirely made up.”
The investigation, known as Crossfire Hurricane, has fueled similar unfounded accusations that a so-called deep state of government officials were working together to hobble Mr. Trump’s campaign and the administration.
But an independent review by the Justice Department’s inspector general determined that officials had sufficient reason to open the investigation and found no evidence that agents acted with political bias. But agents also made serious mistakes in parts of the investigation, including some involving documents related to a wiretap of a former Trump campaign adviser, which have been amplified by right-wing media and wielded as proof that the F.B.I. was on a witch hunt.
Mr. Barr told The Journal that the F.B.I.’s use “of confidential human sources and wiretapping to investigate people connected to a campaign was outrageous.”
The inspector general concluded that the use of informants and undercover agents complied with Justice Department and F.B.I. policies but suggested those steps lacked oversight.
Mr. Barr’s appointment of Mr. Durham as a special counsel grants Mr. Durham the kind of authorities given to Robert S. Mueller III, the former special counsel who eventually oversaw the Russia investigation. That should ensure that any report written by Mr. Durham is made public, Mr. Barr said.
Mr. Barr said that Mr. Durham was focused on a “small group at the F.B.I.” — an apparent reference to the former senior officials who played a role in authorizing Crossfire Hurricane.
Mr. Barr said Mr. Durham was also looking at “the activities of certain private actors,” a possible reference to Christopher Steele, a British former spy who helped assemble a dossier of anti-Trump material that was passed to the F.B.I. and used as part of the application to wiretap the former Trump adviser, Carter Page.
Mr. Durham has spent significant time examining the dossier, including the actions of F.B.I. officials who came later to understand that it had significant problems but failed to convey that to the secret court that approves the highly classified wiretaps, people familiar with Mr. Durham’s investigation said.
As part of his investigation, Mr. Durham prosecuted a former F.B.I. lawyer who pleaded guilty to altering an email that an agent relied on to renew one of the Page wiretap applications. The inspector general had found the document and referred it to prosecutors.
In the interview, Mr. Barr also criticized the appointment of Mr. Mueller, the former F.B.I. director whom Mr. Barr once closely worked with in the early 1990s when he first ran the Justice Department.
Mr. Barr said Mr. Mueller should have looked at the information the F.B.I. provided him more critically. “The Mueller team seems to have been ready to blindly accept anything fed to it by the system,” he said.
The attorney general derided Mr. Mueller’s prosecution of Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, who pleaded guilty twice to lying to the F.B.I. about his conversations with the then Russian ambassador in late 2016 and admitted to illegally lobbying for Turkey.
After a federal judge had dismissed Mr. Flynn’s many claims of prosecutorial wrongdoing and F.B.I. abuses in late 2019, Mr. Barr then appointed a U.S. attorney to review the case.
Prosecutors then sought to drop the criminal case against Mr. Flynn but before a judge could rule on the matter, Mr. Trump pardoned Mr. Flynn, ensuring the Justice Department under the Biden administration could not prosecute him for violating the lobbying laws too.
Mr. Barr said the case against Mr. Flynn was “entirely bogus.”
The judge overseeing the Flynn case, U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan, disagreed with Mr. Barr’s sweeping conclusion. In an opinion this month, Judge Sullivan said that the Justice Department’s arguments for dropping the case were dubious and that he likely would have rejected them.
The judge also rejected evidence that the department had supplied to the court in an attempt to show that the F.B.I. had tried to entrap Mr. Flynn.