The federal prosecutor reviewing the origins of the investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 election has been granted the authority to pursue the probe as a criminal investigation, a source familiar with the matter confirmed to ABC News.
The move means that the Justice Department, which until now had been performing an administrative review of the matter, is now shifting to a criminal inquiry, in which U.S. Attorney John Durham, who is running the investigation, can subpoena witnesses, impanel a grand jury, and bring criminal charges.
For President Donald Trump, the shift bolsters his three-year effort to discredit the Russia investigation as a hoax and a fraud conducted by bitter government partisans.
For the president's detractors, however, the decision raises a new round of questions about the independence of Attorney General William Barr and the use of the Justice Department to further the president's goals.
"These reports, if true, raise 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," Rep. Jerrold Nadler, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and Rep. Adam Schiff, chairman of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said in a joint 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," the statement continued.
Some clarity could be provided by the results of a review being conducted by the inspector general as he seeks to determine whether there was bias at the origins of the Russia investigation. The review, by the Justice Department's internal watchdog, is nearing its completion, the inspector general said last month.
The parallel investigations come as the House continues its own impeachment investigation into whether the president illegally pressured Ukraine to open an investigation into his political rivals in exchange for military aid.