Dems say attorney general undermined credibility with Trump talking point

Democrats on Thursday accused Attorney General William BarrWilliam Pelham BarrGOP eager for report on alleged FBI surveillance abuse DOJ watchdog won't let witnesses submit written feedback on investigation into Russia probe: report Bill Clinton advises Trump to ignore impeachment: 'You got hired to do a job' MORE of playing into President TrumpDonald John TrumpButtigieg surges ahead of Iowa caucuses Biden leads among Latino Democrats in Texas, California Kavanaugh hailed by conservative gathering in first public speech since confirmation MORE’s attacks on the FBI after he testified the day before that he is reviewing whether U.S. officials were improperly “spying” on the 2016 campaign.

They warned that Barr is undermining his credibility by using language that echoes Trump and his allies.

“When someone is given real information that Russia interfered with our elections, of course they’re supposed to look into it, that’s part of their job,” Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said from the Senate floor on Thursday.

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“For Mr. Barr to label this as spying, echoing some of the worst conspiracy theorists in the country, he loses all credibility and that credibility is vital,” Schumer said. “Because he’ll be issuing a report with redactions.”

Democratic lawmakers said they plan to ask Barr for more clarity on what exactly he meant with the use of the word “spying” when he returns to testify about special counsel Robdert Mueller’s completed investigation next month. 

“I can hardly wait,” said Sen. Mazie HironoMazie Keiko HironoOvernight Energy: Perry replacement faces Ukraine questions at hearing | Dem chair demands answers over land agency's relocation | Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders unveil 0B Green New Deal public housing plan Perry replacement moves closer to confirmation despite questions on Ukraine Hirono memoir due in 2021 MORE (D-Hawaii), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “The attorney general knew exactly the import of the words he used. And it was yet another gift to this president.” 

She called Barr's four-page memo summarizing Mueller’s report “the first gift.”

Barr’s memo, Democrats contend, allowed the White House to cement the narrative that Mueller’s investigation left Trump in the clear. While Barr in his letter quoted from Mueller’s report directly to say it did not exonerate Trump on the issue of obstruction of justice, Trump has said that the report did exonerate him.

Democrats have grown more and more frustrated at the fact that Mueller’s report remains sealed. Barr signaled this week that a redacted version was likely to be provided to Congress next week.

In his memo, Barr said that based on the evidence Mueller provided, he did not think a charge of obstruction of justice should be brought against Trump. He also wrote that Mueller did not find evidence of a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Moscow.

Trump seized on Barr's comments on Thursday as vindication, saying that he “absolutely” believes there was “unprecedented” spying on his campaign.

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“There was absolutely spying into my campaign,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office during a meeting with the South Korean president. “I’ll go a step further. In my opinion it was illegal spying, unprecedented spying and something that should never be allowed to happen in our country again.”

Sen. Christopher CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsSenators introduce bipartisan bill restricting police use of facial recognition tech Centrist Democrats seize on state election wins to rail against Warren's agenda Bill Gates visits Capitol to discuss climate change with new Senate caucus MORE (D-Del.), another Judiciary Committee member, said he was surprised that Barr, who previously served as attorney general under George H.W. Bush, used the inflammatory term “spying.”

“The word 'spying,' particularly in the context of spying on the Trump campaign, has very negative connotations,” Coons said. “I was struck that an institutionalist like Barr indulged in such incendiary language.”

Barr made the remarks during testimony before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee when he said that he would be “reviewing both the genesis and the conduct of intelligence activities directed at the Trump campaign during 2016.”

“I think spying on a political campaign is a big deal,” Barr said.

Barr later tried to clarify his statement, saying that he wanted to review whether anything improper took place.

“I am not saying that improper surveillance occurred,” Barr said. “I’m saying that I am concerned about it and looking into it, that’s all.”

The Justice Department inspector general, Michael Horowitz, has been investigating whether the FBI properly applied for a surveillance warrant on former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.

Trump’s conservative allies have accused the Justice Department and FBI officials of bias against Trump during the 2016 campaign that led to pursuing a surveillance warrant on Page based on largely unverified research from the so-called Steele dossier compiled by a former British intelligence officer. The Steele dossier is a compilation of memos that make allegations about Trump's ties to the Russian government. 

Another investigation by Horowitz found that agents who worked on both the investigations into Russia's election interference and former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonJordan calls Pelosi accusing Trump of bribery 'ridiculous' DOJ watchdog won't let witnesses submit written feedback on investigation into Russia probe: report What are Republicans going to do after Donald Trump leaves office? MORE’s emails exchanged text messages critical of Trump during the race. But it found no evidence that their views influenced decisions made in the Clinton investigation.

Trump on Thursday renewed his call for a probe into the origins of the investigation of his 2016 campaign that led to the Mueller probe, calling the alleged surveillance “treason.”

"This is dirty politics. This is actually treason. This is a very bad thing that people have done. And I just hope that law enforcement takes it up because if they don't take it up they're doing a great disservice to our country," Trump said.

Democrats said Barr's comments played into attacks on the FBI.

“I expected better from a guy with that kind of reputation, that he would not so cavalierly undermine the professionals at the Department of Justice and the FBI. And I think it was extraordinarily disappointing,” said Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerHillicon Valley: Federal inquiry opened into Google health data deal | Facebook reports millions of post takedowns | Microsoft shakes up privacy debate | Disney plus tops 10M sign-ups in first day Microsoft embraces California law, shaking up privacy debate Google sparks new privacy fears over health care data MORE (Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. 

Centrist Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinFormer coal exec Don Blankenship launches third-party presidential bid Centrist Democrats seize on state election wins to rail against Warren's agenda Overnight Energy: Senate eyes nixing 'forever chemicals' fix from defense bill | Former Obama EPA chief named CEO of green group | Senate reviews Interior, FERC nominees criticized on ethics MORE (W.Va.), who was one of three Democrats to vote in favor of Barr’s confirmation, blasted the attorney general.

“I think that was a horrible choice of language, and it was a horrible statement to come from our attorney general,” Manchin said on CNN's “New Day” on Thursday. 

Republicans downplayed Barr’s choice of words.

“There are multiple definitions for it. One is conducting an intelligence investigation. But it's undeniable that both the Clinton campaign and the Trump campaign were investigated by the FBI,” said Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.), a Senate Judiciary Committee member. 

Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioGOP senators plan to tune out impeachment week Republicans warn election results are 'wake-up call' for Trump Paul's demand to out whistleblower rankles GOP colleagues MORE (R-Fla.), however, acknowledged that “spying” was an inflammatory word for Barr to use.

“I mean, the terminology's a loaded term and if he had to do it over again, I imagine the word spying wouldn't have been used. But there was most certainly surveillance,” Rubio told CNN. 

Former FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyDay one impeachment hearings draw 13.1M viewers, down 32 percent from Comey hearings There are poor ideas, bad ones and Facebook's Libra Trump has considered firing official who reported whistleblower complaint to Congress: report MORE said Thursday that he had “no idea” what Barr meant by saying there was “spying” on the Trump campaign. But Comey warned that Barr's reputation could be damaged by using that kind of language.

“Maybe the only thing I can say generally is — I think that his career has earned him the presumption that he will be one of the rare Cabinet members who will stand up for things like truth and facts and institutional values,” Comey said Thursday at the Hewlett Foundation's conference. 

“So, I still think he’s entitled to that presumption. Language like this makes it harder, but I still think he’s entitled to that presumption,” Comey said.