WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Thursday defended Attorney General Bill Barr’s contention that Trump’s 2016 campaign was the subject of “spying,” as congressional Democrats continued to accuse Barr of peddling conspiracy theories.
Trump, speaking to reporters at the White House during a meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, also distanced himself from his previous embrace of the WikiLeaks website following the arrest of its founder Julian Assange, and said he was not concerned about the pending release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s redacted report.
The president also said he was open to working on a series of “smaller deals” with North Korea to take “steps” toward denuclearization, but ultimately would push for “the big deal … to get rid of the nuclear weapons.”
Trump, asked about Barr’s testimony before a Senate panel on Wednesday, said his appointee’s remarks were “accurate.” The attorney general told lawmakers he thought “spying did occur,” against the Trump campaign and would “be reviewing both the genesis and the conduct of intelligence activities directed at the Trump campaign during 2016.”
The president, who has long cast the Russia probe as part of a “deep state” effort to undermine his presidency, and who has publicly disputed the findings of U.S. intelligence agency leaders on other matters, reiterated Thursday his claim that “there was absolutely spying into my campaign.”
“In my opinion, it was illegal spying, unprecedented spying, and something that should never be allowed to happen in our country again,” Trump said.
Barr, when asked to elaborate Wednesday on why he believed the Trump campaign had been spied upon, declined to provide details. Later, he told lawmakers: “I am not saying that improper surveillance occurred. I'm saying that I am concerned about it and looking into it. That's all.”
Barr’s testimony was met with widespread condemnation from Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who in a Senate floor speech on Thursday criticized Barr for using the "words of conspiracy theorists"
"Barr's comments yesterday have just destroyed the scintilla of credibility that he had left in terms of being a fair, impartial person," said Schumer (D-N.Y.)
Saying Barr is acting more like Trump's spokesman than an attorney general. Schumer added: "He's doing everything that the president would want him to do rather than looking at the law and making some objective determination."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in a one-on-one interview with The Associated Press, said she did not trust Barr, adding: “Attorney General Barr is not the Attorney General of Donald Trump. He is the Attorney General of the United States. It’s about time he started acting like it.”
Asked about the pending release of a redacted version of Mueller’s final report, Trump said he was “not concerned” the report would contain damaging information. Instead he continued to rail against the underlying probe, calling it a “hoax” and part of “dirty politics.”
“We never did anything wrong,” Trump said. “The people that did something wrong were the other side, the dirty cops.”
Trump, who on the 2016 campaign trail often praised the release on the website WikiLeaks of Hillary Clinton’s hacked campaign emails, said Thursday he knew “nothing” of the website, hours after British authorities arrested Assange in response to an extradition request by the United States. Federal authorities have charged Assange with conspiring to illegally acquire U.S. military and diplomatic documents in 2010.
“I know nothing about WikiLeaks. It's not my thing,” said Trump, who at 2016 campaign rallies uttered phrases like “Boy, I love reading those WikiLeaks,” and “WikiLeaks, I love WikiLeaks.”
Asked what he’d like to see happen to Assange, Trump said: “I don't really have any opinion. I know the attorney general will be involved in that and he'll make a decision.”
Trump, who has met twice with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un without reaching a denuclearization deal, said “a third summit could happen.”
“It’s step by step. It’s not a fast process; I've never said it would be,” Trump said about getting North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.