Prosecutors wanted to move forward on the case and believed they could obtain an indictment, one source familiar with the matter said. The source said the investigation was mostly done well before the time period when prosecutors are discouraged from advancing politically sensitive matters ahead of an election.
But two sources tell CNN the US attorney in Brooklyn at the time, Richard Donoghue, expressed misgivings about the case. It’s unclear if he delayed the case outright or if prosecutors chose not to move forward at the time knowing the US attorney would not support it.
Then-Attorney General William Barr was also known inside the department to have reservations, in general, about foreign lobbying cases, which the Justice Department has struggled to prosecute in the past.
A spokesman for the Brooklyn US attorney’s office declined to comment.
Donoghue did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.
Donoghue was subsequently promoted by Barr to become principal associate deputy attorney general at the Justice Department.
Barrack’s indictment struck a blow in Trump circles because of his close association with “Donny,” as Barrack referred to the former President in a deposition last year.
With a four decade-old friendship with Trump and his position as an adviser during the 2016 campaign, transition and early days of the administration, Barrack is well-informed about people around the former president, and about events that have already prompted criminal charges.
But Barrack, the wealthy head of a real estate and private equity firm, has vowed to fight the charges and can afford a robust defense, making it less likely that he would flip to become a cooperating witness against a bigger target. A person familiar with Barrack’s thinking said he doesn’t intend to cooperate in any federal or state investigations related to Trump.
Instead, prosecutors appear to be treating Barrack as their big fish, the object of what current and former Justice officials acknowledge is an aggressive case that is part of a broader crackdown by the Justice Department on alleged violations of foreign lobbying laws, which were rarely enforced for decades.
To be sure, Barrack could always decide he wants to avoid trial and provide evidence of possible wrongdoing by others. His deep ties to the Trump world during the 2016 campaign, have made him a witness in Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation and others.
Federal prosecutors in Manhattan also examined his role as chairman of the Trump inaugural committee, on which he was chairman, including allegations that some people associated with the inauguration violated influence peddling laws, but that probe hasn’t been active since last year and no one has ever been charged in that case, according to people familiar with the matter.
Because of his chairmanship of the inaugural committee, Barrack was deposed in an ongoing civil suit over the inauguration festivities by the DC attorney general.
The relative novelty of foreign lobbying cases gave some senior Justice officials, in the Trump administration, pause on the Barrack matter, particularly after prosecutors lost or ran into problems in other, similar cases.
Then, Mark Lesko, who helped oversee the Barrack case as the first deputy US attorney in Brooklyn, was tapped earlier this year to take over as acting assistant attorney general for the national security division at Justice headquarters, the unit that is helping bring the case, people briefed on the matter said.
CNN’s Sonia Moghe and Emma Tucker contributed to this story.