Democrats accused President Donald Trump on Friday of using the US Justice Department as a political tool after it opened a criminal probe into its own handling of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
News of the inquiry, which implied wrongdoing by justice officials in the previous administration of Barack Obama, leaked late Thursday as the White House struggled to push back against a Democratic-led impeachment investigation targeting the Republican president.
The inquiry could further muddy the political waters in Washington, raising questions about the now-ended Russia investigation led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller that saw 34 individuals indicted and eight convictions, including top members of Trump's 2016 election team.
Trump's Republican allies have sought to drown the impeachment probe in a pool of invective and counter-probes, forcibly shutting down one witness interview and demanding an investigation of the impeachment effort's leader, Democrat Adam Schiff.
On Friday Republicans said the newly disclosed Justice Department inquiry could shore up the president's longstanding claim that the Mueller investigation was a "witch hunt" based on "fake news".
"The point of the investigation is to make sure the DoJ and FBI under the Obama administration in 2016 wasn't being used as a tool to influence the elections," said Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway on Fox News.
"Don't we have a right to know if... they were or were not subverting justice and trying to interfere with the elections?" she said.
But Democrats said it was a clear effort by Trump-allied Attorney General Bill Barr to shift attention from the impeachment probe, which has accumulated strong evidence that Trump abused his office in pressuring Ukraine to help his 2020 re-election campaign.
The latest inquiry raises "profound new concerns that the Department of Justice under Attorney General William Barr has lost its independence and become a vehicle for President Trump's political revenge," said Schiff and another senior House Democrat, Jerry Nadler, in a statement.
"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."
Democratic Senator Mark Warner said Barr needs to explain the new inquiry to Congress.
"Mr. Barr's 'investigation' has already jeopardized key international intelligence partnerships. He needs to come before Congress and explain himself," Warner said.
The Justice Department did not respond to requests for comment.
Roots of the Russia investigation
The criminal inquiry has grown out of an initial internal DoJ probe led by federal prosecutor John Durham into the beginnings of the 2016 investigation into whether members of Trump's campaign conspired with Moscow's sweeping effort to influence the election.
Earlier this year Mueller concluded the investigation with a report showing dozens of contacts between the Trump campaign and Russians, and demonstrating that the campaign actively sought dirt on Clinton from Moscow.
Mueller ruled that those activities did not rise to the level of a criminal conspiracy.
Marcy Wheeler, an independent journalist who has studied deeply the Russia investigation, said Durham could be honing in on procedural errors or leaks in the early days of the Russia probe.
Those could involve former campaign aide George Papadopoulos and former Trump national security advisor Michael Flynn, both of whom pleaded guilty in the Mueller investigation to lying to investigators.
Both are also now seeking to reverse their convictions, alleging malfeasance by the Obama DoJ and FBI.
"There may be real crimes he's investigating, or reconsidering past charging decisions, especially leaks," Wheeler wrote Friday.
"But at least thus far, Durham has spent six months without corroborating the main conspiracy theories about the investigation."
Impeachment gaining strength
The investigation comes as the impeachment probe in Congress gains momentum and could see formal impeachment articles presented before the end of the year.
In closed-door interviews 10 witnesses -- including White House, State Department and Defense Department officials -- have supported a whistleblower's allegations that between April and September Trump sought to force Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to open corruption investigations into Trump's possible 2020 rival Joe Biden, and into a debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine assisted the Democrats in 2016.
The witnesses have described Trump holding back nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine to pressure Zelensky to act -- which Democrats say was extortion and abuse of power by the US president.
Democrats are looking to hear from more -- they issued subpoenas for two White House officials and one from the State Department Friday and were reportedly negotiating with former national security advisor John Bolton to testify.
Other witnesses have told investigators that Bolton opposed Trump's use of aid to pressure Zelensky.