Attorney General William P. Barr revealed Wednesday that the Justice Department is looking into the possibility that Russian operatives fed disinformation to the Hillary Clinton campaign during the 2016 presidential election season.
Mr. Barr told a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing about the expanded scope of a review into “the activities over the summer of 2016,” which included vehemently anti-Trump FBI senior officials making key decisions on the investigations of Mrs. Clinton and Republican candidate Donald Trump.
One key question is how much the FBI relied on the dossier compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele, using information gleaned from Russian sources, which helped spur the Trump-Russia collusion narrative. The dossier was funded by payments from the Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee that were hidden in campaign finance reports behind payments to a law firm.
Republican senators said it’s possible that Mr. Steele’s Russian sources were intentionally feeding him disinformation, which then made it to the highest levels of the FBI. Indeed, former FBI Director James B. Comey’s first personal interaction with Mr. Trump was to brief him on the Steele dossier shortly before his inauguration in January 2017.
“That’s the definition of collusion,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the chamber’s senior Republican.
Mr. Barr said he doesn’t know the answer — yet.
“That is one of the areas that I’m reviewing. I’m concerned about it, and I don’t think it’s entirely speculative,” he told the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Democrats were incensed at the prospect of a counterinvestigation. They said the focus should stay squarely on Mr. Trump and what they believe to be his team’s efforts to coordinate with Russia in 2016 — and then obstruct the investigation that resulted. U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that the Kremlin ran a major disinformation campaign in 2016 to hurt Mrs. Clinton and boost Mr. Trump in the race.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, called the Republican efforts “the so-called lock-her-up defense,” a reference to a popular Trump campaign trail chant against Mrs. Clinton for her use of a secret unsecured email account while she served as secretary of state under President Barack Obama.
Mr. Durbin said Mrs. Clinton’s troubles were old news. “That is totally unresponsive to the reality of what the American people want to know,” he said.
Mr. Barr was on Capitol Hill to testify about his handling of special counsel Robert Mueller’s final report on the Russian hacking operation, submitted to the Justice Department in late March and revealed to the public in lightly redacted form two weeks ago.
Mr. Mueller concluded that despite their shared interest in defeating Mrs. Clinton, there was no evidence that Mr. Trump or his aides coordinated efforts with Moscow in the election. Mr. Mueller said there was evidence that Mr. Trump tried to hinder investigations into Russia and his presidential campaign, but he didn’t reach any firm conclusions on criminality. Mr. Barr, however, did reach conclusions, saying it would have been impossible to make a prosecutable case.
That, ironically, is the same conclusion Mr. Comey came to in 2016 when he exonerated Mrs. Clinton for her emails.
It was later revealed that the FBI opened a counterintelligence investigation into Trump campaign figures several weeks afterward, though the agency never informed Mr. Trump or his team.
Mr. Barr described the zealous pursuit of Mr. Trump as the work of a few high-placed officials who engaged in “overreach” — and who have since been ousted from their jobs.
“It was a few people in the upper echelons of the bureau and perhaps the department. But those people are no longer there,” he said.
Mr. Barr previously revealed that he was looking into FBI and Justice Department decisions surrounding the 2016 campaign. Congressional Republicans have long pressed the theory that the FBI investigation began illegitimately, fueled by agents who were intent on discrediting the Republican nominee.
Mr. Barr said he will piggyback on work of the inspector general and investigations completed by congressional committees and Mr. Mueller.
Those promises are likely to thrill Mr. Trump, who has long maintained that any criminal behavior during the campaign is connected to Mrs. Clinton.
The Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee made payments — hidden in campaign finance documents behind a law firm — to Fusion GPS, a Democratic research operation that paid Mr. Steele to investigate reports of Mr. Trump’s financial links to Russia.
Mr. Steele produced the dossier that claimed secret meetings between Trump campaign figures and Russian operatives and suggested salacious events such as blackmail-style tapes of a Trump encounter with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel room. The Mueller report found no evidence to corroborate either of the allegations.
Mr. Barr said he will review how and when the FBI learned of the Democratic backing for the Steele dossier.
The attorney general said Mr. Trump probably should have been briefed on Russian meddling in the election, including efforts to reach out to his campaign.
“I can’t fathom why it did not happen,” he said. “If you are concerned about interference in the election and you have substantial people involved in the campaign who are former U.S. attorneys, you had three former U.S. attorneys there in the campaign. I don’t know why the bureau would not have gone and given a defensive briefing.”
Sen. Ben Sasse, Nebraska Republican, asked whether Mr. Barr would support a change to legislation mandating that presidential nominees be given those kinds of briefings as a matter of course, given foreign governments’ interests in subverting U.S. elections.
Mr. Barr said that was a good idea.
“The danger from countries like China, Russia and so forth is far more insidious than it has been in the past because of nontraditional collectors that they have operating in the United States, and I think most people are unaware of how pervasive it is and what the risk level is,” he said. “I think it actually should go far beyond even campaigns where people involved in government have to be educated on this.”
• Stephen Dinan can be reached at email@example.com.
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