Democrats Fear Attorney General Barr Has 'October Surprise' Attorney General William Barr says he won't take any action to influence the presidential election, but looming in the background is a probe apparently focused on the Obama administration.

Democrats Worry Attorney General Has An 'October Surprise' In The Making

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STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

Attorney General Bill Barr has promised the Justice Department will not take any action to influence the upcoming election. But Democrats and DOJ veterans are not so sure about that. In opinion pieces and letters, they warned that Barr might be preparing an October surprise. With us to talk about these developments is NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson.

Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi there.

VANEK SMITH: Carrie, we are less than three months away from the presidential election. So why are we hearing so much about the Justice Department and political concerns right now?

JOHNSON: There is one big reason for that. It's recent testimony from the attorney general. Democrats asked about the status of an investigation by prosecutor John Durham, and that prosecutor appears to be looking at actions by the Obama administration in 2016. Here's Florida Congresswoman Debbie Mucarsel-Powell asking Attorney General Bill Barr about that.

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DEBBIE MUCARSEL-POWELL: Do you commit to not releasing any report by Mr. Durham before the November election?

BILL BARR: No.

MUCARSEL-POWELL: You don't commit to that?

BARR: No.

VANEK SMITH: And, Carrie, I understand that you have some new details today about the status of John Durham's work. So tell us, please.

JOHNSON: Durham has asked to interview President Obama's CIA Director John Brennan. I'm confirming a report from earlier today from NBC News. I'm told also that they're trying to iron out the details and that Brennan has been told it's a technical-type series of questions and that he's not a target of the prosecutors.

Now, some lawyers involved in the investigation think this might mean John Durham is getting close to the end. But others who have had contact with him and his team say they don't know about that. One attorney said since we have no idea exactly what he's looking at, it's hard to make that assessment.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, wow. OK. Well, so what do we know now about what might be in the sights of this prosecutor?

JOHNSON: We know that Attorney General Barr says Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, who's now, of course, running for president, are not targets of Durham's probe. Any criminal investigations are focused on other people, Barr says. And there are a couple of areas my sources are flagging now. One is action by a former FBI lawyer who's under investigation for allegedly doctoring papers in connection with a surveillance application in 2016, and that surveillance of former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page has been heavily criticized both by the inspector general and Republicans in Congress.

And the second area may be the leak of sensitive information to reporters, including a Washington Post columnist in early 2017, about conversations that the incoming Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn was having with the Russian ambassador around that time. There might be more. We don't know for sure. But we do know Durham is likely to put out his findings in writing, a written report of some sort.

VANEK SMITH: So why would the timing of the Durham report raise concerns right now?

JOHNSON: Well, four years ago, actions by then-FBI Director Jim Comey did seem to hurt presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. And this time around, Democrats are suspicious of Bill Barr. They say he misrepresented the findings of an earlier investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller to benefit Donald Trump. And this week, Fred Wertheimer of the left-leaning group Democracy 21 wrote an open letter to Durham, saying if Durham is not done, he should wait to finish until after the election. That letter said if Durham gets overruled, he should withdraw from the case to avoid damaging his long and distinguished career inside the Justice Department.

VANEK SMITH: NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson.

Thanks, Carrie.

JOHNSON: My pleasure.

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