Attorney General William Barr said that he’s starting his own inquiry into counterintelligence decisions that may have amounted to political “spying,” including actions taken during the probe of the Trump campaign in 2016.
“I think spying did occur,” Barr told a Senate Appropriations panel on Wednesday. “But the question is whether it was predicated, adequately predicated.” He added: “I need to explore that.”
The comments, confirming a report by Bloomberg News, indicate that Barr is looking into allegations that Republican lawmakers have been pursuing for more than a year — that the investigation into President Donald Trump and possible collusion with Russia was tainted at the start by anti-Trump bias in the FBI and Justice Department.
Barr said he wasn’t opening a broad investigation into the FBI — vouching for the bureau and current Director Christopher Wray — but added that “there was probably a failure by a group of leaders there at the upper echelon.”
Barr’s inquiry is separate from a long-running investigation by the Justice Department’s inspector general. Barr told a House Appropriations panel on Tuesday that he expected the inspector general’s work to be completed by May or June.
Asked about the prospect of such an inquiry, Trump told reporters Wednesday that he’s most interested in the attorney general “getting started on going back to the origins” of what the president called “an attempted coup.” He said “what they did was treason.”
But Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, called Barr’s testimony “irresponsible.”
“He knows there was ample evidence of Russian attempts to infiltrate the Trump campaign and that the FBI took lawful action to stop it,” Warner said on Twitter. “Giving a wink and a nod to this long-debunked ‘spying’ conspiracy theory is irresponsible.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called it “very, very dismaying and disappointing” that “the chief law enforcement officer of our country is going off the rails.” Speaking to reporters at a retreat of House Democrats in Leesburg, Virginia, Pelosi said Barr “is the attorney general of the United States, not the attorney general of Donald Trump.”
‘Trump’s Defense Team’
The issue came up as Barr continued to be pressed by Democrats to give lawmakers Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s full report and the evidence behind it.
“Attempts to hide swaths of the report from public scrutiny along the way will only fuel suspicions” that the Justice Department is “playing the role of President Trump’s defense team,” Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont said at Wednesday’s hearing.
Barr said that after he releases a public version of Mueller’s report with some sections redacted — which he said he’ll do next week — he’ll talk to leaders of the Senate and House Judiciary panels about providing them more information. “I’m willing to work with the committees,” he said.
But Republicans remained focused on questions about the origins of the probe. Senator Lindsey Graham, who heads the Senate Judiciary Committee, has already pledged to pursue the issue.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Graham sought Barr’s assurance that he would “make sure that the law was followed and if there was any abuse of the law to report to the Congress and the public.”
The attorney general agreed, saying he wanted “to satisfy myself ” that there was “no abuse of law enforcement or intelligence powers.” He added later that he didn’t rule out prosecutions for spying on the Trump campaign, but hadn’t yet determined whether any improper surveillance was conducted.
House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, asked for an immediate briefing from the Justice Department, saying on Twitter that Barr’s remarks “directly contradict what DOJ previously told us.”
Some Justice Department officials have argued that a review into the FBI is necessary based on a pattern of actions, including a criminal investigation that agents opened into former Attorney General Jeff Sessions in 2017 for misleading lawmakers about his contacts with Russians when he was a senator advising Trump’s campaign. The case against Sessions was eventually closed without charges.
“That’s great news he’s looking into how this whole thing started back in 2016,” Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, the top Republican on the House Oversight and Reform Committee, said Tuesday of Barr’s interest in the issue. “That’s something that has been really important to us. It’s what we’ve been calling for.”
Before they lost control of the House in last November’s election, Jordan and Republican allies including Devin Nunes of California conducted a two-year campaign to show players in the FBI and Justice Department were out to get Trump.
They interviewed more than 40 witnesses, demanded hundreds of thousands of Justice Department and FBI documents, and held a bombastic hearing in attempts to bring attention to their suspicions.
Republican Representative Robert Aderholt of Alabama asked Barr during Tuesday’s hearing if the Justice Department is investigating “how it came to be that your agency used a salacious and unverified dossier as a predicate for FISA order on a U.S. citizen?”
Aderholt was referring to the “Steele Dossier” that had been put together as opposition research against Trump, including with funding from Democrats.
Congressional Republicans — and the president — have alleged that officials improperly relied on that dossier to obtain a secret warrant to spy on former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. They say that was the start of the probe that Trump calls a “witch hunt” and that Mueller took over after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey.
In congressional testimony last year, though, Comey rejected the underlying thesis — that the Russia investigation was prompted by the dossier. “It was not,” Comey told House lawmakers.
Rather, he said, the probe began with information about a conversation that a Trump campaign foreign policy adviser — known to be George Papadopoulos — “had with an individual in London about stolen emails that the Russians had that would be harmful to Hillary Clinton.”