The Department of Justice will probe whether the FBI’s investigation of Russian election interference was politically tainted, bowing to escalating attacks from Donald Trump.
The department’s internal inspector general will seek to determine if “there was any impropriety or political motivation in how the FBI conducted its counterintelligence investigation of persons suspected of involvement with the Russian agents who interfered in the 2016 presidential election”, spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said in a statement.
Raising the possibility of criminal penalties, Ms Flores added that the department would consult with prosecutors if “any evidence of potential criminal conduct” emerges.
Federal investigators have been looking into Russian efforts to sway the 2016 presidential election, including potential contacts with members of the Trump presidential campaign, since before Mr Trump assumed office. But Mr Trump’s presidency has been consumed by Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian meddling, which the president regularly denounces as unfounded.
In recent days Mr Trump has assailed reports that the FBI used an informant to gather information on campaign members, suggesting that the tactic violated a ban on politically motivated investigations. Over the weekend he said he would direct the Justice Department to investigate.
“I hereby demand, and will do so officially tomorrow, that the Department of Justice look into whether or not the FBI/DOJ infiltrated or surveilled the Trump Campaign for Political Purposes – and if any such demands or requests were made by people within the Obama Administration!” Mr Trump said.
Within hours, the Justice Department said it planned to comply with the president’s desire to vet its conduct during the presidential campaign.
“If anyone did infiltrate or surveil participants in a presidential campaign for inappropriate purposes, we need to know about it and take appropriate action”, deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein – who oversees Mr Mueller’s probe and has come under attack by congressional Republicans – said in a statement.
Rather than launching a new investigation, the Department of Justice plans to expand an existing review into how FBI agents go about obtaining permission to surveil targets.
That practice has been in the spotlight since it was revealed that agents had secured the authority to monitor former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.
Republicans in Congress and and Mr Trump have charged that investigators abused their powers, saying they concealed the fact that their suspicions of Mr Page derived in part from the work of a former British spy, Christopher Steele, that was funded by the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign. Law enforcement officials have denied that accusation.
Allies of the president heralded the announcement the Department of Justice’s announcement, saying it would help hold federal law enforcement accountable. But critics warned that it was another example of the president displaying authoritarian tendencies and seeking to derail the Russia investigation.
“The president’s statement indicating that he will order the Justice Department to investigate the FBI could not be more disturbing and reiterates his deep contempt for the rule of law”, Senator Dianne Feinstein said in a statement.
The president has consistently denied any collusion took place and derided the investigation as a meritless “witch hunt”.