Attorney General William Barr on Wednesday touched off a firestorm during a hearing on Capitol Hill, saying he believes “spying did occur” in the federal investigation into the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia while defending his review of the probe. By the end of the hearing, though, he backed off his explosive claim.
“I think spying on a political campaign is a big deal,” Barr said during testimony before the Senate Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies subcommittee.
“Spying” is a pejorative term not normally used to describe domestic counterintelligence investigations.
But when pressed later, Barr clarified his language, saying that he does not necessarily believe any “improper surveillance occurred.”
“I am saying that I am concerned about it and I’m looking into it,” he said. “I want to make sure there was no unauthorized surveillance.”
Earlier, Barr’s assertion about the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign seemed to prejudge his own review of the probe.
“I think spying did occur,” he said. “The question was whether it was adequately predicated. And I’m not suggesting it wasn’t predicated. I need to explore that.”
The “spying” claim drew immediate reactions from both the left and right.
Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, tweeted that Barr’s comments “directly contradict what DOJ previously told us.”
“I’ve asked DOJ to brief us immediately,” Nadler added.
Donald Trump Jr., meanwhile, celebrated Barr’s remark.
“This is a big deal and of course hes right,” Trump Jr. tweeted. “Everyone knows it. I look forward to getting to the bottom of it once and for all.”
Barr said that “part of my responsibility is to protect the civil liberties of the American people, and I think something that is important is that the law enforcement and intelligence agencies respect the limits on their powers.”
In his testimony before the House Appropriations subcommittee on Tuesday, Barr said he was in the process of reviewing the origins of the Russia probe — something President Trump and his supporters have demanded.
“I am reviewing the conduct of the investigation and trying to get my arms around all the aspects of the counterintelligence investigation that was conducted during the summer of 2016,” Barr said.
In September 2016, Yahoo News first reported that former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page was under federal investigation over a trip he had taken to Moscow two months earlier. At the time, the Trump campaign distanced itself from Page, saying his role was an “informal one.”
The story, by Yahoo News chief investigative correspondent Michael Isikoff, was later cited in an FBI application for a surveillance warrant against Page.
Isikoff’s’ reporting on Christopher Steele, the former British spy who prepared the controversial dossier about Trump, was also a major part of the FBI’s application to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for permission to wiretap Page.
Trump and his allies have pointed to the dossier as evidence of surveillance abuses by the FBI and Department of Justice. A highly partisan 2018 memo prepared by GOP House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes outlined that argument.
Last May, Trump went so far as to claim that the DOJ “put a spy” in the Trump campaign.
But there is no evidence to support that assertion. CNN reported that someone who had “been a source for the FBI and CIA for years” had assisted the probe, but, contradicting the president, an informant “was not planted inside the campaign to provide information to investigators.” (Emphasis added.)
Speaking to reporters on the South Lawn Wednesday morning, Trump said he welcomed Barr’s review of the probe.
“What I’m most interested in is getting started, hopefully the attorney general, he mentioned it yesterday,” Trump said. “He’s doing a great job, getting started on going back to the origins of exactly where this all started. Because this was an illegal witch hunt and everybody knew it.”
During Wednesday’s hearing, Barr, a Trump appointee, was asked whether he agreed the investigation was a “witch hunt” and “illegal.”
“It really depends where you are sitting,” Barr said.
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