U.S. Attorney John Durham’s probe into the origins of the Russia collusion investigation is not expected to lead to a criminal investigation of former President Barack Obama or former Vice President Joseph R. Biden but could result in prosecutions of others, Attorney General William P. Barr said Monday.
Still, the probe threatens to become as politically charged as the moves by the Obama-era justice and intelligence agencies that Mr. Durham is targeting.
Mr. Barr said criminal charges in the case will be based on the rule of law and not political retribution because “this cannot be, and it will not be, a tit-for-tat exercise.”
“We are not going to lower the standards just to achieve a result,” he said.
Mr. Barr made the comments during a press conference on revelations that al Qaeda was involved in a December shooting by a Saudi airman at a naval base in Pensacola, Florida. In a brief digression, he mentioned that some aspects of the Durham probe “are being investigated as potential crimes.”
Mr. Barr did not offer details about what kinds of crimes Mr. Durham may be investigating.
The investigation has focused on misstatements made to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court about former Trump campaign aide Carter Page and efforts to target Michael Flynn, President Trump’s first national security adviser.
No criminal charges have been filed from the Durham probe.
Former CIA Director John O. Brennan acknowledged last week that he could be in Mr. Durham’s crosshairs. Mr. Brennan has yet to meet with Mr. Durham but said he would welcome the opportunity.
Mr. Durham was supposed to be finalizing his probe this spring but ran into delays caused by the coronavirus outbreak. The investigation itself, however, is believed to be advancing at full speed.
Mr. Trump and his allies bristled at Mr. Barr’s statement that neither Mr. Obama nor Mr. Biden, now the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, is likely to face a criminal investigation.
“I’m a little surprised by that statement,” Mr. Trump told reporters at the White House.
Mr. Trump said the attempt to undermine his campaign and his presidency with the Russian collusion investigation was the biggest political scandal in U.S. history.
Still, he vouched for Mr. Barr as a “very honorable attorney general and a very honorable man.”
He said he would leave decisions about the Durham probe to Mr. Barr but added that he did not have to do that as president.
Mr. Trump has maintained that Mr. Obama was involved in a conspiracy to target his campaign for political purposes and coined the term “Obamagate.” He has not said what crime he believes Mr. Obama committed, though he told reporters last week that “the crime is obvious to everyone.”
No evidence has surfaced that Mr. Obama or Mr. Biden was involved in a crime. Republicans have questioned details revealed last week that at least 40 members of the Obama administration sought to unmask Flynn.
Mr. Biden and Mr. Obama’s chief of staff were among those seeking information on Flynn.
Unmasking is the process for obtaining the identity of a U.S. citizen whose name is concealed in a classified foreign intelligence report.
Congressional Republicans have demanded that Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden testify before Congress, though Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham was skeptical.
“I have great doubts about whether it would be wise for the country,” the South Carolina Republican said last week.
Mr. Graham did announce that the committee will debate and vote within the next couple of weeks on whether to give him the authority to subpoena officials and documents from several top former Obama administration officials.
The subpoena would cover “a number of documents, communications and testimony from witnesses, including James Comey, Andrew McCabe, James Clapper, John Brennan, Sally Yates, and others,” the committee said in a statement.
Neither Mr. Obama nor Mr. Biden was included in the request.
Mr. Barr maintained that he would not allow a Justice Department probe to influence the presidential election in November.
“We live in a very divided country right now, and I think that it is critical that we have an election where the American people are allowed to make a decision, a choice, between President Trump and Vice President Biden based on a robust debate of policy issues,” Mr. Barr said. “And we cannot allow the process to be hijacked by efforts to drum up criminal investigations of either candidate.”
The attorney general also revived his grievances about the FBI’s 2016 probe into accusations that the Trump campaign conspired with Russia’s election interference plans.
Mr. Barr called the Russia investigation “a grave injustice” and “unprecedented.”
“We saw two different standards of justice emerge,” he said. “One that applied to Trump and his associates and another that applied to everyone else.
“The Durham investigation is trying to get to the bottom of what happened,” Mr. Barr said.
If any federal laws were broken, he said, those found to be involved “will be held to account.”