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A Look At Attorney General Barr's Investigation Into Russian Election Interference


President Trump has long claimed that the probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election was just, quote, "a witch hunt." Not too long after taking office, Attorney General William Barr named a top prosecutor to review the origins of the probe. Now The Washington Post reports this investigation has taken Barr to several corners of the world, where he has asked foreign intelligence officials for help. Reporter Matt Zapotosky joins us from The Post studios.

Welcome back to the program.

MATT ZAPOTOSKY: Hi. Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: When did this all start? And have you learned why it started?

ZAPOTOSKY: In recent months, kind of over the summer and as recently as last week, the attorney general has taken a personal role in this thing. He's traveled abroad to the United Kingdom and to Italy. He has met with intelligence officials and law enforcement officials in both places. We know that the attorney general seems to be concerned with the origins of the Russia probe. He seems particularly focused on this guy named Joseph Mifsud who many people probably won't remember. But he was the person kind of who helped spark this whole thing. He talked with a Trump campaign adviser, a guy named George Papadopoulos, about having dirt in the form of thousands of emails on Hillary Clinton. George Papadopoulos would later lie to the FBI about that interaction.

We know there are some theories that conservatives have floated about this guy and about this being a setup. So it's possible that Bill Barr wants to look at those. But that's sort of what we know about what he's interested in and who he's been meeting with.

CORNISH: And the attorney general did tap a well-known prosecutor back in May to lead this investigation. It's U.S. attorney for Connecticut John Durham. Why did Barr pick this person in particular? What's he tasked with doing?

ZAPOTOSKY: Well, he picked Durham because Durham is a well-respected guy who's been in the Justice Department for a long time in career roles and now as the U.S. attorney in Connecticut. He's probed sensitive intelligence matters before, and that was a part ideally, we think, of what attracted Barr to him. And he also lent some credibility to this effort.

So Barr's personal involvement now, though, is raising questions in the mind of some people, current and former, involved in the Russia investigation, like, wasn't the idea to separate this from the people who are perceived as being political, like Bill Barr, and get it in John Durham's hands, who is a little bit - has a little bit more neutral reputation, if you will? They're worried now if Barr is getting involved, that might be because he, you know, wants to juice this thing in some way. That is the fear. Barr would say, of course, no, no, no. I just think this is very important, and I'm trying to open doors, essentially, for Durham.

CORNISH: So far, have we heard anything from the attorney general? Did you all, in the course of this reporting, hear from him on this issue?

ZAPOTOSKY: He hasn't himself, like, in his own words addressed this, but his spokesperson has addressed this. And she was kind of focused on this call that President Trump made to his Australian counterpart encouraging the Australian prime minister to help in this effort. But the thrust of that statement was largely, look; yes, the president did that at Barr's direction. Barr is essentially trying to open doors for Durham.

His spokesperson has also confirmed that Durham is looking at some aspect having to do with Ukraine. That's, of course, important because of this phone call here recently between President Trump and the president of Ukraine, where President Trump also presses for an investigation of the investigators. But the Bill Barr spokesperson has importantly said, you know, Bill Barr and the president hadn't talked about Ukraine. Bill Barr was surprised to see his name kind of come up on that call. So that's about the extent of what his camp has said about this. And we have not heard yet from Bill Barr himself.

CORNISH: That's Matt Zapotosky. He's a reporter with The Washington Post covering national security and the Justice Department.

Thanks so much.

ZAPOTOSKY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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