William Barr says he doesn't expect Obama, Biden will face criminal investigation

U.S. Attorney General William Barr said on Monday he does not expect a Justice Department review of the FBI's handling of 2016 election interference to lead to criminal charges for former president Barack Obama or former vice-president Joe Biden.

Donald Trump in recent days has been accusing the Obama administration of ill-defined wrongdoing

President Barack Obama listens as Vice-President Joe Biden speaks on Dec. 13, 2016. Obama is expected to play a significant role in Biden's presidential campaign, but the U.S. attorney general said Monday he doesn't want the talk of potential investigations affecting the election. (Carolyn Kaster/The Associated Press)

U.S. Attorney General William Barr said on Monday he does not expect a Justice Department review of the FBI's handling of 2016 election interference to lead to criminal charges for former president Barack Obama or former vice-president Joe Biden.

"I don't expect Mr. Durham's work will lead to a criminal investigation of either man," Barr said, referring to federal prosecutor John Durham, who is reviewing the origins of the investigation into Russia's 2016 election interference. "Not every abuse of power, no matter how outrageous, is necessarily a federal crime."

Barr said that he did not want to see the spectre of investigations overshadow the choice voters will have to make in the November election.

He said the election should be decided strictly on policy debates, and that any investigation of a political candidate would need to be approved by him personally.

"We cannot allow this process to be hijacked by efforts to drum up criminal investigations of either candidate," Barr said.

U.S. President Donald Trump in recent weeks has repeatedly referred to a scandal he calls "Obamagate," saying without evidence that Obama was tied to, "The biggest political crime in American history, by far!"

Trump has not made clear what he is accusing Obama of doing, but the allegations appear to focus on law enforcement actions taken at the end of Obama's presidency. Trump pushed the allegations during a blitz of 120 tweets and retweets on May 10, Mother's Day.

Following Barr's comments, Trump said he was surprised that Barr opted not to look at Obama in a Justice Department review of the FBI's handling of the 2016 Russia probe.

"I'm a little surprised by that statement," Trump told reporters while calling Barr "very honourable" and saying he would leave any such decision up to Barr.

Last week, Senate justice committee chair Lindsey Graham said his committee will open a wide-ranging inquiry into the Russia investigation, but rejected Trump's tweet indicating that Obama needs to testify.

"I am greatly concerned about the precedent that would be set by calling a former president for oversight," said Graham, a South Carolina Republican and staunch Trump ally. "No president is above the law. However, the presidency has executive privilege claims against other branches of government."

'Others' being looked at: Barr

Barr did allow Monday that "our concern for potential criminality is focused on others."

Barr would not name those individuals, pending the ongoing Durham probe, but right-wing media outlets have continually criticized the likes of James Comey and Andrew McCabe, former top officials of the FBI, as well as Peter Strzok, a former agency investigator involved both in probes of Trump campaign links with Russia and over Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server system.

Barr again let his feelings known about the Russia investigation in general, saying that the cloud of suspicion Trump faced in the first two years of office was "abhorrent" and "a grave injustice."

Attorney General William Barr said Monday he thought the Russia investigation that Trump faced was a 'grave injustice.' (Alex Brandon/The Associated Press)

Special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation led to the indictments of over 30 individuals, mostly Russian, but also six men with connections to Trump. Barr has previously stated that with respect to links between Trump's campaign team and Russians, there was no legitimate "predicate" for an investigation.

Democrats have criticized Barr for injecting his department into the prosecutions stemming from the Mueller probe, specifically in the cases of ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn and longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone.

Earlier this month, the Justice Department said it would recommend dropping charges for Flynn, who previously pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak during the presidential transition period. The presiding judge in the case has said he wants to hear more about the process that led to that decision before agreeing to dismiss the charges without prejudice.

Earlier, the Justice Department sought to shorten the recommended sentence for Stone.

'Unmasking' controversial – and common

Trump allies on Capitol Hill and in the media have focused much of their discussion over the last week on the release of the names, or "unmasking," of Trump associates in the Flynn investigation.

U.S. privacy laws and intelligence regulations require that Americans' names picked up in foreign communications intercepts be concealed unless senior officials ask that they be disclosed, or "unmasked," for intelligence or law enforcement purposes.

Michael Flynn leaves federal court in Washington in September 2019. Trump allies have accused the Obama administration and the FBI of targeting Flynn, but the presiding judge in the former national security adviser's case has not said if he will agree that charges should be dropped. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/The Associated Press)

Richard Grenell, acting director of national intelligence appointed by Trump, declassified a list of Obama administration officials who sought to unmask Trump associates including Flynn and gave the list to the Justice Department.

The list includes Biden, who leads Trump in several opinion polls. Biden's campaign dismissed the release of the list as a political stunt.

Michael Morrell, who was an acting CIA director for Obama, said the practice of senior officials asking to know the names of people under government surveillance is quite common. "You can't do your job without it," he said.

The requests are common, including during the Trump administration, which has made thousands of "unmasking" requests.

There were 9,217 unmasking requests in the 12-month period between September 2015 and August 2016, the first period in which numbers are publicly available, the Associated Press reported last week. The period was during the latter years of the Obama administration.

"We must determine if these requests were legitimate," Graham said.

Requests actually have risen during the Trump administration. The 9,529 requests in 2017 grew to 16,721 in 2018 and 10,012 last year.

The Senate committee will also will look at whether Mueller should have been appointed as special counsel. The decision to appoint Muller was made in 2017 by then-deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein after Trump fired Comey. Then-attorney general Jeff Sessions had recused himself after a conflict of interest over shifting statements about the Russian ambassador, a recusal Trump continually criticized.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer last week railed against Republicans' renewed focus on Flynn and the Russia investigation during a time of deadly pandemic.

At the time Barr spoke Monday, nearly 90,000 Americans have succumbed to coronavirus-related deaths.

With files from CBC News and The Associated Press