The US Justice Department has shifted its review of the Russia probe to a criminal investigation, a source told AP.
The revelation comes as President Donald Trump is already facing scrutiny about a potential abuse of power, including a House impeachment inquiry examining whether he withheld military aid in order to pressure the president of Ukraine to launch an investigation of former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
It is not clear what potential crimes are being investigated, but the designation as a formal criminal investigation gives prosecutors the ability to issue subpoenas, potentially empanel a grand jury and compel witnesses to give testimony and bring federal criminal charges.
The US Justice Department had previously considered it to be an administrative review, and US Attorney General William Barr appointed John Durham, the US attorney in Connecticut, to lead the inquiry into the origins of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
It is not clear when Mr Durham’s inquiry shifted to a criminal investigation.
Mr Durham is examining what led the US to open a counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign and the roles that various countries played in the US probe.
He is also investigating whether the surveillance methods and intelligence-gathering methods used during the investigation were legal and appropriate.
Mr Mueller’s investigation shadowed Mr Trump’s presidency for nearly two years and outraged the president, who cast it as a politically motivated “witch hunt”.
Mr Mueller determined that the Russian government interfered in the 2016 election, but his investigation did not find sufficient evidence to establish a criminal conspiracy between Mr Trump’s campaign and Russia.
Mr Mueller also examined 10 possible instances of obstruction of justice and has pointedly said he could not exonerate the president.
The New York Times first reported that Mr Durham’s inquiry had become a criminal investigation.
The chairmen of the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees, which are leading the impeachment inquiry, said in a statement late on Thursday that the reports “raise profound new concerns” that Mr Barr’s Department of Justice “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,” Democratic Representatives Jerrold Nadler and Adam Schiff said.
The Justice Department has said Mr Trump recently made several calls at Mr Barr’s request to foreign leaders, including Australian prime minister Scott Morrison, to help the attorney general with the Durham investigation.
Mr Barr also travelled with Mr Durham to Italy in August and September, and the two met with Italian intelligence officials to seek information about the activities of FBI agents assigned there, Italian premier Giuseppe Conte said on Wednesday.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.