Barr testimony opens new partisan fight over FBI spying on Trump

Attorney General William BarrWilliam Pelham BarrAttorney General Barr's license to kill Medical examiner confirms Epstein death by suicide Justice Dept. says Mueller report has been downloaded 800 million times MORE said Wednesday that he is reviewing whether U.S. officials improperly “spied” on members of the Trump campaign, a statement that prompted cheers from Republicans and gave Democrats new reasons to attack the top Justice Department official as a partisan steward of President TrumpDonald John TrumpO'Rourke: Trump driving global, U.S. economy into recession Manchin: Trump has 'golden opportunity' on gun reforms Objections to Trump's new immigration rule wildly exaggerated MORE.

The Justice Department inspector general, Michael Horowitz, has already been investigating whether the FBI adhered to department rules in applying for warrants to spy on former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page for more than a year, an inquiry Barr has said is close to completion.

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Barr signaled Wednesday that he would get involved because of his own concerns, reviewing details turned over by Horowitz as well as congressional Republicans to determine if there are routes for further investigation.

“I am going to be reviewing both the genesis and the conduct of intelligence activities directed at the Trump campaign during 2016,” Barr said during testimony before the Senate on the Justice Department’s budget request. “I think spying on a political campaign is a big deal.”

The statement echoed a promise Barr made earlier, but the use of the word “spying” on Wednesday triggered blaring headlines. And it aligned him more closely with the views of Trump and some conservative lawmakers and pundits who have criticized the early Russia investigation led by former FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyBarr predicts progressive prosecutors will lead to 'more crime, more victims' James Comey shows our criminal justice system works as intended Trump says he's 'very strongly' considering commuting Rod Blagojevich's sentence MORE.

Barr tried to clarify his statement later, saying he was worried that “improper surveillance” may have occurred and that he wanted to review it. Barr said he had no specific evidence of wrongdoing from the original investigation or special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerTrump calls for probe of Obama book deal Democrats express private disappointment with Mueller testimony Kellyanne Conway: 'I'd like to know' if Mueller read his own report MORE’s probe.

“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 remarks triggered a wave of criticism from Democrats.

“Let me just say how very dismaying and disappointing that the chief law enforcement officer of our country is going off the rails yesterday and today,” Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiObjections to Trump's new immigration rule wildly exaggerated Latest pro-democracy rally draws tens of thousands in Hong Kong Lewandowski on potential NH Senate run: If I run, 'I'm going to win' MORE (D-Calif.) told reporters as she kicked off House Democrats’ annual “issues” retreat at a golf resort 35 miles northwest of Washington.

Barr “is the attorney general of the United States of America, not the attorney general of Donald Trump,” she said.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffAre Democrats turning Trump-like? Schiff offers bill to make domestic terrorism a federal crime New intel chief inherits host of challenges MORE (D-Calif.) in a statement accused Barr of using a “partisan talking point.”

“His comments were wildly irresponsible and show that he has adopted the destructive mindset of his boss,” Rep. Jim HimesJames (Jim) Andres HimesRising star Ratcliffe faces battle to become Trump's intel chief Democrats express private disappointment with Mueller testimony Live coverage: Mueller testifies before Congress MORE (D-Conn.) told The Hill. “Properly predicated spying is called investigating. Not spying.”

Sen. Christopher CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsThe United States broken patent system is getting worse Biden faces scrutiny for his age from other Democrats Democrats press FBI for details on Kavanaugh investigation MORE (D-Del.), a member of the Judiciary Committee who was present at the hearing, accused Barr of using “incendiary language.”

“I think it’s important that we not feed conspiracy theories and instead proceed in a measured way,” Coons said. “I respect the attorney general has the role to ensure that law enforcement and intelligence resources are not misused, but I think he should be more careful with his language.”

Republicans and conservatives in the media have long criticized the probe of the Trump campaign, pointing in part to texts exchanged by FBI agents who mocked Trump.

They have long alleged that Justice Department and FBI officials were biased against Trump during the election and pursued a surveillance warrant on the Trump campaign based on largely unverified opposition research.

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Republican lawmakers say federal authorities did so by overly relying on information from the author of the so-called Steele dossier, a compilation of memos that make a series of unverified allegations about Trump’s ties to Moscow, as a basis for obtaining a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant on Page after he left the Trump campaign.

As a result, Barr’s interest in further investigating the origins of the FBI’s counterintelligence probe is welcome news to Trump and Republicans.

In remarks to reporters Wednesday, Trump described the investigation as “illegal” and an “attempted coup” and decried the agents who pursued it as “dirty cops” who committed “treason.”  

“What I’m most interested in is getting started, hopefully the attorney general — he mentioned it yesterday. He’s doing a great job — getting started on going back to the origins of exactly where this all started,” Trump said before boarding Marine One for a fundraising trip to Texas.

An earlier investigation by Horowitz revealed that agents who worked on both the Russia and former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonLewandowski on potential NH Senate run: If I run, 'I'm going to win' Fighter pilot vs. astronaut match-up in Arizona could determine control of Senate Progressive Democrats' turnout plans simply don't add up MORE email investigations exchanged text messages critical of Trump before the election, but it found no evidence that their bias influenced decisions made in the course of the Clinton probe.

Still, Horowitz’s report was highly critical of the conduct of top FBI officials, including Comey, former Deputy Director Andrew McCabeAndrew George McCabeThe Hill's Morning Report — Will Congress do anything on gun control? McCabe sues FBI, DOJ, blames Trump for his firing McCabe says it's 'absolutely' time to launch impeachment inquiry into Trump MORE and former counterintelligence agent Peter Strzok, who have become popular Republican targets.

“I’ve said for more than a year that some of the actions of a few senior Department of Justice and intelligence officials is difficult to explain,” said Rep. Chris StewartChristopher (Chris) Douglas StewartFCC proposes new 3-digit suicide prevention hotline number GOP lawmaker's town hall erupts in shouting over mass shootings, Trump Live coverage: Mueller testifies before Congress MORE (R-Utah), a member of the House Intelligence Committee. “That is why many of us on the Intelligence Committee will very shortly provide the Department of Justice with criminal referrals.”

Barr has said he expects Horowitz to complete his investigation into the FISA process by May or June, which has already prompted calls by conservative House members for Horowitz to testify publicly about his findings once his probe concludes.

On Wednesday, Barr downplayed reports he had convened a team to review the counterintelligence decisions before the 2016 election but said he planned to have “some colleagues” help him pull information together from Horowitz as well as Republican-led congressional probes to determine whether matters need further review.

“I feel I have an obligation to make sure that government power is not abused,” Barr said. “I think that is one of the principal roles of the attorney general.”

Barr’s remarks have thrust him further into the spotlight as he prepares for the imminent release of Mueller’s report.

Democrats have already questioned Barr’s credibility and independence in his handling of Mueller’s investigation after the attorney general penned a four-page letter stating the special counsel did not find evidence to charge members of the Trump campaign with conspiring with the Russians and did not determine whether the president obstructed justice.