(CN) – The Justice Department is shifting its review of the Russia investigation into a criminal probe, a move likely to raise ethical questions about the president’s use of law enforcement to look into his opponents.
The opening of the investigation comes one month after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump and allegations he withheld aid to Ukraine to force an investigation into his political rival Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.
The examination of the Russian investigation was started in May by Attorney General William Barr as an administrative review, led by the Connecticut U.S. Attorney John Durham. The New York Times first reported on the shift to a criminal probe on Thursday evening, provided with information from two people familiar with the matter.
Under administrative review, Durham could only conduct voluntary interviews and look at government files. With the opening of a criminal investigation, he can issue subpoenas for testimony and documents, as well as file federal criminal charges.
Durham, a veteran prosecutor, is taking the unusual move of investigating the Justice Department and examining the reasons why an investigation was opened into Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Special counsel Robert Mueller investigated the president over the course of two years to determine if anyone from his campaign engaged in a criminal conspiracy with Russian officials to interfere with the election. While Mueller’s investigation did not find sufficient evidence of a conspiracy, it also noted obstruction efforts by the president and said he could not exonerate him.
In a joint statement, Reps. Jerry Nadler and Adam Schiff, chairmen of the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees, said the “reports, if true, raise profound new concerns that the Department of Justice under AG Barr has lost its independence and become a vehicle for President Trump’s political revenge.”
“If the Department of Justice may be used as a tool of political retribution, or to help the President with a political narrative for the next election, the rule of law will suffer new and irreparable damage,” Nadler and Schiff said.
Neither the White House nor the Justice Department have publicly commented on the report.