Justice Dept. Documents Highlight Criticisms of Mueller Inquiry

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department this week turned over to allies of President Trump documents that appeared to undermine aspects of the investigation into the campaign’s ties with Russia.

The documents — related to flawed applications for a wiretap on a former Trump adviser and an F.B.I. agent’s criticisms of the prosecution of the former national security adviser Michael T. Flynn — were the latest in a series of releases that have helped fuel the president’s assertions of a “deep state” plot against him.

Mr. Trump on Friday promoted several tweets from conservative commentators who used the findings to criticize the Russia investigation.

According to the Justice Department, a primary source for a dossier of information used to secure court permission for the wiretaps was the subject of an earlier counterintelligence investigation into Mr. Trump’s ties to Russia. The disclosure raised the possibility that Russian operatives had planted misinformation in the dossier, a compendium of unverified claims about the president and his ties to the country.

Attorney General William P. Barr personally approved the disclosure to Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and one of the president’s closest allies in Congress. Mr. Barr has suggested that more information about the dossier will be declassified and released in the coming days.

Another document also released on Thursday to Sidney Powell, a lawyer for Mr. Flynn, summarized an interview with an F.B.I. agent on his case who believed it should not have been prosecuted.

Former law enforcement officials questioned the release of the documents in the weeks before the election and as a department inquiry into the Russia investigation led by John H. Durham, the U.S. attorney in Connecticut, continues.

“It seems to fit a recent pattern of what appears to be unusual moves by the Justice Department that can be interpreted as politically motivated weeks before the presidential election,” said Gregory A. Brower, a former U.S. attorney and senior F.B.I. lawyer. “Whether or not that is the attorney general’s intent or motivation, he has to understand how this looks for the department. ”

In a broadside against the special counsel’s office, William J. Barnett, the veteran F.B.I. agent on the team who handled Mr. Flynn’s case, said his colleagues had a “get Trump” attitude, according to a summary of his interview with Jeffrey B. Jensen, the prosecutor whom Mr. Barr tapped in January to determine whether there were any improprieties in the case. Mr. Jensen turned over the document to Ms. Powell.

Mr. Barnett said that the special counsel’s prosecutors believed, without hard evidence, that “something criminal” must have occurred between Russia and the Trump campaign. Mr. Barnett said he stayed on the team to prevent “groupthink.”

Mr. Barnett told Mr. Jensen that the team had ignored evidence that Mr. Flynn was not compromised by Russia. But that “ground just kept being retreaded” as prosecutors tried to prove that the Trump campaign had colluded with Russia to upend the 2016 election, he said.

While Mr. Barnett had doubts and objected to the prosecution, he nevertheless sat with prosecutors when Mr. Flynn pleaded guilty in December 2017 to lying to federal agents about his conversations with a Russian diplomat.

Ms. Powell has repeatedly asserted that her client was railroaded and entrapped by the F.B.I. and Justice Department.

Upon Mr. Jensen’s recommendation, the Justice Department moved this year to drop its criminal charge against Mr. Flynn for lying to investigators, an extraordinary step that prompted criticism that Mr. Barr was politicizing the department. The attorney general has defended the move as an effort to serve justice.

A federal judge has held up the move to scrutinize it and will hear arguments on Tuesday about why he should allow the department to dismiss the case rather than move ahead with sentencing.

Mr. Barnett, an agent in the F.B.I.’s Washington field office, played a pivotal role in the Flynn case. He was assigned to the investigation in the weeks after it opened, as the bureau explored connections between the Trump campaign and Russia. When Robert S. Mueller III was named special counsel to take over the broader Russia investigation in 2017, Mr. Barnett joined his team.

From his earliest days on the case, Mr. Barnett believed that the broader investigation, internally known as Crossfire Hurricane, was based on “supposition upon supposition,” he said in his interview. Still, Mr. Barnett said there were grounds to investigate three other Trump campaign advisers whom the inquiry focused on.

But Mr. Barnett was particularly skeptical about the Flynn case, which he called “an exercise in futility.” He said he thought that the F.B.I. began investigating Mr. Flynn for flimsy reasons, including his attendance at a 2015 dinner in Moscow where he sat next to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, an act that Mr. Barnett called “ill-advised” but not illegal.

He told Mr. Jensen several times that he did not believe Mr. Flynn had committed a crime. In early January 2017, he drafted a memo that would close the case and hoped that the bureau would interview Mr. Flynn and then end the inquiry.

Instead, Peter Strzok, then a top counterintelligence official at the F.B.I., kept the case open after the bureau learned that Mr. Flynn had spoken with Sergey I. Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States at the time, and that he had hidden those discussions from Trump officials. Mr. Barnett apparently did not think the calls were suspicious.

Investigators, including Mr. Strzok, questioned Mr. Flynn at the White House in January 2017 and concluded that he had lied to them about his conversations with Mr. Kislyak. Mr. Barnett said he thought he was “cut out” of the interview of Mr. Flynn.

Mr. Barnett did not dispute that Mr. Flynn had lied, but he played down its significance, telling prosecutors that Mr. Flynn most likely lied to save his job.

Mr. Barnett did later tell Mr. Strzok that another case against Mr. Flynn was “far stronger” and had “specific information” that could be investigated. Identifying details about the case were blacked out of the document released on Thursday, but the comments appeared to be a reference to an F.B.I. investigation into work Mr. Flynn had done on behalf of Turkey. Mr. Flynn later admitted to violating foreign lobbying laws but was not charged as part of a plea deal.

In its motion to drop the criminal charge against Mr. Flynn, the Justice Department cited Mr. Barnett’s January 2017 draft memo as evidence that there was no reason to question Mr. Flynn about his conversations with the Russian because the case was all but closed. The department also said that the F.B.I. had transcripts of Mr. Flynn’s calls with Mr. Kislyak, and there was no need, the department argued, to question him further.

Soon after the Flynn interview, Mr. Barnett asked to leave the case and said that he feared it was “problematic” enough to become the subject of an inspector general investigation, according to his interview. His request was denied.

Separately, Mr. Barr shared newly declassified information on Thursday with Mr. Graham about the primary source for the document, known as the Steele dossier after Christopher Steele, the British former spy who compiled it.

The dossier originated during the 2016 campaign as opposition research funded by Democrats. The F.B.I. included several assertions from it in applications to wiretap Carter Page, a former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser who had already been the subject of an open counterintelligence investigation before the bureau opened its Trump-Russia inquiry.

Previous declassifications by the Trump administration have resulted in the public identification of Igor Danchenko, an expert in Russian politics, as Mr. Steele’s primary source. Mr. Danchenko gathered rumors and claims from his own contacts in Russia about purported ties between Russian intelligence and Mr. Trump and his associates for it. (Mr. Danchenko has portrayed the dossier as exaggerating what he told Mr. Steele.)

The newly released information stated that Mr. Danchenko was the subject of a counterintelligence investigation from May 2009 to March 2011. That fact had been included in a previously redacted version of an inspector general report about flaws in the Page wiretap applications, and Mr. Barr provided a summary of the inquiry for Mr. Graham, who is investigating the F.B.I., to disseminate.

Mr. Barr’s summary said the investigation was opened because someone told the F.B.I. that Mr. Danchenko had made a comment at a think tank the previous year that had sounded like a solicitation to pay for unauthorized disclosures of classified information. It also said a subsequent investigation showed that Mr. Danchenko had had contact in 2005 and 2006 with people who were suspected of being Russian intelligence officers, including one at the Russian Embassy in Washington, to whom he had expressed an interest in eventually joining the country’s diplomatic service.

Mark Schamel, Mr. Danchenko’s lawyer, said in a statement on Friday: “As every objective investigation has shown, Mr. Danchenko is an exceptional analyst who is truthful and credible.”

Charlie Savage contributed reporting.

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