Attorney General William Barr declared Wednesday he thinks “spying did occur” against Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, suggesting the origins of the Russia investigation may have been mishandled.
Barr, appearing before a Senate panel, did not say what “spying” may have taken place but seemed to be alluding to a surveillance warrant the FBI obtained on a Trump aide. He later said he wasn’t sure there had been improper surveillance but wanted to make sure proper procedures were followed.
Barr was testifying for a second day at congressional budget hearings that were dominated by questions about special counsel Robert Mueller’s Trump-Russia investigation. The attorney general said he expects to release a redacted version of Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the campaign next week.
Barr’s testimony on Wednesday further inflamed the Democrats.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler of New York tweeted that Barr’s comments “directly contradict” what the Justice Department previously has said. And intelligence committee Chairman Adam Schiff of California said Barr’s comments were sure to please Trump, but strike “another destructive blow to our democratic institutions.”
Republicans, meanwhile, praised Barr’s testimony. North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, a Trump confidant who has raised concerns about Justice Department conduct investigating Trump, tweeted that Barr’s willingness to step in is “massive.”
At the Capitol hearing, senators appeared taken aback by his use of the word “spying.” Asked by Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz if he wanted to rephrase his language, Barr said, “I’m not sure of all the connotations of that word that you’re referring to, but you know, unauthorized surveillance.”
White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said on Fox Business News that “People were wiretapped. People were looked into and spied upon. That should be a serious question that the American people should demand answers for and quite frankly so should Congress.”
Trump has said the investigation of his campaign is an illegal “witch hunt.”
On Wednesday he said, “It was started illegally. Everything about it was crooked. Every single thing about it. There were dirty cops.”
“If you are somebody who’s being falsely accused of something, you would tend to view the investigation as a witch hunt,” he said.
The spying discussion started when Barr was asked by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, about his plans to review his department’s actions in investigating Trump. A separate investigation is being conducted by the department’s inspector general. Barr explained that he considered spying on a political campaign to be a “big deal,” invoking the surveillance of civil rights protesters and then of anti-war protesters during the Vietnam War.
Asked by Shaheen if he was suggesting “spying” had occurred, Barr replied “spying did occur. Yes, I think spying did occur. The question is whether it was predicated, adequately predicated,” meaning whether it was legally justified.
“I feel I have an obligation to make sure that government power was not abused,” he said.
Asked again about spying at the end of the hearing, Barr tempered his tone. “I am not saying improper surveillance occurred. I am saying I am concerned about it, and I am looking into it,” he said.
Barr may have been referring to a secret surveillance warrant that the FBI obtained in the fall of 2016 to monitor the communications of former Trump campaign aide Carter Page, who has not been charged with any wrongdoing. That warrant application included a reference to research by an ex-British spy that was funded by Democrats to examine Trump’s ties to Russia.
Critics of the Russia investigation say the warrant was unjustified and have also seized on anti-Trump text messages sent and received by one of the lead agents involved in investigating whether the Trump campaign was colluding with Russia.
Barr’s statement Wednesday that he expected to release a redacted version of Mueller’s nearly 400-page report next week marked a slight change from the estimate he gave Tuesday, when he said the release would be within a week.
Though he said the document will be redacted to withhold negative information about peripheral figures in the investigation, he said that would not apply to Trump, an officeholder and someone central to the probe.
Barr said he did not believe Mueller’s evidence was sufficient to prove that Trump had obstructed justice.
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