WASHINGTON — For years, President Trump has complained bitterly about F.B.I. officials who investigated his campaign’s ties to Russia, and about the “rogue bureaucrats of the Deep State” at the intelligence agencies, portraying them as enemies out to delegitimize his presidency.
Now, a special Justice Department inquiry investigating those officials has taken on another of Mr. Trump’s irritants: leaks to the news media.
Investigators for John H. Durham, the U.S. attorney in Connecticut leading the investigation, have asked witnesses about news articles published in early 2017 that former administration officials blame for prompting the chaos that dominated the early days of the Trump presidency, according to three people familiar with the inquiry. Among them was a Washington Post column about Michael T. Flynn, the president’s first national security adviser, one of the people said.
What Mr. Durham has found is hidden from public view, and the coronavirus pandemic has slowed his progress, the people said. But Attorney General William P. Barr has promoted the investigation in recent days, saying that Mr. Durham has uncovered “troubling” problems and indicating that some results could made public before the general election in November. Mr. Trump has said he looks forward to the outcome of the inquiry, and a report or criminal charges before the election would all but assure that he weaponize it for political gain.
The new details show that Mr. Durham’s inquiry is broader than previously known — not just examining intelligence on Russia and how it was handled or investigative decisions by the F.B.I., but whether sources spoke to The Post intending to damage Mr. Trump’s presidency. The president and his allies in Congress have long condemned leaks revealing unflattering information about the administration.
Mr. Durham declined to comment, a spokesman said, as did a spokeswoman for the Justice Department.
Mr. Durham was initially assigned to examine the origins of the F.B.I. investigation into whether any Trump associates conspired with Russia’s interference in 2016 to tilt the election. Since then, his team has not only questioned F.B.I. officials but also intelligence analysts, suggesting that he was taking aim at the spy agencies’ most explosive conclusion about 2016: that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia intervened to benefit Mr. Trump.
Investigators have also examined the role of John O. Brennan, the C.I.A. director in 2016, in how intelligence agencies assessed Russia’s election interference. Though Mr. Trump’s allies have accused Mr. Brennan — who has made his distaste for the president widely known — of tainting intelligence to go after Mr. Trump, the Senate Intelligence Committee said this week in a report that it found no evidence that the intelligence community’s assessment on Russian interference had been politicized.
Last year, Mr. Durham also started examining the 2017 column by The Post’s David Ignatius, said a person familiar with that line questioning. Mr. Ignatius revealed that Mr. Flynn had spoken in late 2016 with Sergey I. Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States at the time, as the Obama administration was about to place sanctions on Russia for its election sabotage.
Mr. Ignatius noted Mr. Flynn’s close contacts with the Russians and suggested that because Mr. Flynn was apparently conducting foreign policy while another administration was in power, he might have violated the Logan Act. The law is an obscure statute that bars private citizens from interfering with diplomatic relations between the United States and foreign governments and is widely considered to be essentially defunct.
The next month, Mr. Flynn resigned after lying to the vice president and other White House officials about the call with Mr. Kislyak. He eventually pleaded guilty to lying to the F.B.I. about the nature of his discussions with Mr. Kislyak.
Mr. Ignatius’s column “set off a chain of events that helped lead to the Russia probe,” K.T. McFarland, the former deputy national security adviser to Mr. Trump, wrote in her recent book, “Revolution: Trump, Washington and ‘We the People.’”
Mr. Durham has reviewed Ms. McFarland’s interviews with F.B.I. investigators in other inquiries, examining what she has said about Mr. Ignatius’s reporting and asked other witnesses about it, according to person familiar with elements of the investigation. She revised her answers to questions from investigators for the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, on elements of Mr. Flynn’s talks with Mr. Kislyak but has accused the investigators of trying to ensnare her in “perjury trap.”
Mr. Durham has not questioned Ms. McFarland.
Whether Mr. Durham has taken over an existing leak investigation of the Ignatius column opened in 2017 or is doing a parallel review as part of his larger inquiry remains unclear. Since the special counsel’s investigation ended, prosecutors in the U.S. attorney’s office in the District of Columbia have overseen matters related to Mr. Flynn.
It was not clear whether Mr. Durham was investigating any other leaks.
While Mr. Durham has said little publicly about the investigation, Mr. Barr has been more vocal. He has repeatedly made clear that he believes that the F.B.I. should have never opened its Trump-Russia investigation, contradicting a finding by the Justice Department inspector general that law enforcement officials had sufficient reason to begin the inquiry.
The inspector general, Michael E. Horowitz, also documented serious errors in the process to seek court approval for a wiretap on a former Trump adviser, Carter Page, whom investigators suspected of being an agent of Russia. An F.B.I. lawyer has been accused of altering an email as part of the application process and could face prosecution.
Mr. Barr has said that Mr. Durham found problems with the investigation that go beyond the applications for the Page wiretap, a small aspect of the sprawling Russia inquiry.
“The evidence shows that we are not dealing with just mistakes or sloppiness,” Mr. Barr told the Fox News host Laura Ingraham this month. “There is something far more troubling here. And we’re going to get to the bottom of it. And if people broke the law and we can establish that with the evidence, they will be prosecuted.”
The attorney general’s comments about the investigation have troubled defense lawyers who believe that Mr. Barr is tainting Mr. Durham’s work by talking about the inquiry before it is concluded. Some of the law lawyers privately questioned whether they would let Mr. Durham or his investigators interview their clients without a subpoena because of Mr. Barr’s comments.
The attorney general has brushed aside concerns about publicly revealing the results of a potentially politically explosive investigation close to an election, raising the prospect that Mr. Durham’s results could be made public before the presidential election.
Justice Department policies prohibit law enforcement officials from taking investigative steps or filing criminal charges to affect elections. Mr. Barr said that those rules do not apply to the Durham inquiry because none of his targets are running for president or are closely associated with the presidential candidates.
“The idea is you don’t go after candidates, you don’t indict candidates, or perhaps someone that’s officially close to a candidate — that is essentially the same — within a certain number of days before an election,” Mr. Barr told the conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt this week. “But, you know, as I say, I don’t think any of the people whose actions are under review by Durham fall into that category.”
Mr. Barr’s actions have hamstrung prosecutors before. An investigation into the former F.B.I. deputy director Andrew G. McCabe fell apart in part because of prosecutors’ concerns that Mr. Barr’s handling of the special counsel report would make their case look even more politicized in addition to the president’s attacks on an accomplished former top law enforcement official, people familiar with that inquiry have said.
The attorney general decided to pronounce Mr. Trump cleared of obstruction of justice in 2019 after the Mueller report put forward evidence that Mr. Trump had committed that crime but stopped short of rendering any prosecutorial judgment. Mr. Barr’s decision prompted swift condemnation that he was going beyond his role to help Mr. Trump politically and putting the department’s typical independence in jeopardy.
Mr. Durham is relying on a team of prosecutors, including Nora R. Dannehy and Neeraj Patel, from Connecticut, as well as former and current F.B.I. agents to complete his investigation. Anthony Scarpelli, a top prosecutor from the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington, was detailed to the team along with a federal prosecutor from Manhattan, Andrew DeFilippis.
Two former F.B.I. agents, Timothy Fuhrman and Jack Eckenrode, are also assisting. An F.B.I. agent who oversaw public corruption in Chicago and served in Ukraine as an assistant legal attaché, Peter Angelini, has also joined Mr. Durham’s team.
Charlie Savage and Michael S. Schmidt contributed reporting.