Barr testimony opens new partisan fight over FBI spying on Trump

Attorney General William BarrWilliam Pelham Barr DOJ says surveillance of Trump campaign adviser Page lacked evidence Senators press DHS over visa approval for Pensacola naval base shooter Democrats sharpen case on second day of arguments 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 TrumpSchiff pleads to Senate GOP: 'Right matters. And the truth matters.' Anita Hill to Iowa crowd: 'Statute of limitations' for Biden apology is 'up' Sen. Van Hollen releases documents from GAO investigation 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.

ADVERTISEMENT

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 ComeyNYT: Justice investigating alleged Comey leak of years-old classified info Bernie-Hillary echoes seen in Biden-Sanders primary fight Rosenstein on his time in Trump administration: 'We got all the big issues right' 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 MuellerSchiff: Trump acquittal in Senate trial would not signal a 'failure' Jeffries blasts Trump for attack on Thunberg at impeachment hearing Live coverage: House Judiciary to vote on impeachment after surprise delay 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 PelosiDemocrats hammer abuse of power charge, allege Trump put self over country Overnight Energy: Trump issues rule replacing Obama-era waterway protections | Pelosi slams new rule as 'an outrageous assault' | Trump water policy exposes sharp divides Pelosi slams Trump administration's new water rule: 'An outrageous assault' 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 SchiffSchiff pleads to Senate GOP: 'Right matters. And the truth matters.' Democrats hammer abuse of power charge, allege Trump put self over country Female impeachment managers say American public know a 'rigged' trial when they see one 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 HimesTwitter users invoke Merrick Garland after McConnell, Graham comments on impeachment trial Pelosi faces tough choices on impeachment managers This week: Impeachment inquiry moves to Judiciary Committee MORE (D-Conn.) told The Hill. “Properly predicated spying is called investigating. Not spying.”

Sen. Christopher CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsHillicon Valley — Presented by Philip Morris International — Bezos phone breach raises fears over Saudi hacking | Amazon seeks to halt Microsoft's work on 'war cloud' | Lawmakers unveil surveillance reform bill Bezos phone breach escalates fears over Saudi hacking Democrats shoot down talk of Bolton, Hunter Biden witness swap 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.

ADVERTISEMENT

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 ClintonSchiff pleads to Senate GOP: 'Right matters. And the truth matters.' Hill.TV's Saagar Enjeti defends Tulsi Gabbard's lawsuit against Hillary Clinton Trump to hold rally on eve of New Hampshire primary 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 McCabeMcCabe accuses Trump officials of withholding evidence in lawsuit over firing McCabe: Being accused of treason by Trump 'quite honestly terrifying' Horowitz report is damning for the FBI and unsettling for the rest of us 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 StewartGOP lawmaker offering bill protecting LGBTQ rights with religious exemptions House GOP wants Senate Republicans to do more on impeachment How House Republicans have stayed unified on impeachment 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.