WASHINGTON — Attorney General William Barr told Congress on Wednesday that he thinks U.S. intelligence agencies engaged in “spying” on the Trump campaign as they investigated Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Barr made that stunning claim at a Senate hearing at which he offered to work with Congress to give it a more complete version of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report and revealed more details about the redacted public version to be released “hopefully next week.”
As senators from both parties pressed Barr on the plans and reasoning for a legal team he spoke of Tuesday to look into the origin and handling of the Russian probe, Barr said he had concerns about FBI and intelligence agencies “spying” on President Donald Trump’s campaign.
“I think spying on a political campaign is a big deal. It’s a big deal,” Barr said, citing the history of surveillance of civil rights and anti-war protesters, resulting in new rules to ensure that law enforcement has “an adequate basis” for political surveillance.
“I'm not suggesting that those rules were violated, but I think it's important to look at that. And I'm not just talking about the FBI, necessarily, but intelligence agencies more broadly,” Barr told members of a Senate Appropriations subcommittee.
“So you're not suggesting, though, that spying occurred,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) said.
“Yes, I think spying did occur,” Barr replied.
Barr said he would not explain why he thought that. Later, he said he had concerns about the basis for foreign intelligence surveillance warrants. The FBI obtained one to conduct surveillance on Russia expert Carter Page after he left the Trump campaign.
He also questioned why the FBI or intelligence agencies didn’t warn Trump about Russia possibly seeking to make inroads into his campaign. “If I were attorney general and that situation came up, I would say, ‘Yes, brief the target of the foreign espionage activity,’” Barr said.
Later, Sen. Brian Shantz (D-Hawaii) pressed Barr to step back from the use of the word “spying,” calling it “provocative” and “inflammatory.”
Barr said, “I'm not sure if all the connotations of that word that you're referring to . . . Unauthorized surveillance. I want to make sure there's no unauthorized surveillance.”
At the end of the hearing, Barr tried to backtrack. “Can I just add one point of clarification?” he said. “I am not saying that improper surveillance occurred. I'm saying that I am concerned about it and looking into it. That's all.”
About the same time that Barr was surprising senators with his spying claim, Trump harshly attacked the investigation of his campaign by the FBI, and then, after he fired FBI Director James Comey, the special counsel.
“This was an attempted coup. This was an attempted takedown of a president and we beat them. We beat them," Trump told reporters at the White House before leaving for Texas. “So the Mueller report, when they talk about obstruction, we fight back. You know why we fight back? Because I knew how illegal this whole thing was: It was a scam.”
On the progress of making a redacted version of the Mueller report public, Barr said Justice Department lawyers were working with attorneys from Mueller’s team to withhold grand jury material, sensitive intelligence matters still under investigation, and privacy issues.
Barr said once the redactions are done, he would talk to House and Senate Judiciary Committee members to find out what other areas of information they need to have access to and would work to see “if I can accommodate them.”
Barr said he would not redact evidence and details of Mueller’s analysis of whether Trump obstructed the Russia investigation, and said the report would include Mueller’s explanation for why he couldn’t reach a decision on whether to prosecute or not.
He said he had spoken with Mueller about why he reached no prosecutorial judgment. Asked if Mueller expressed any interest in leaving that decision to Congress, Barr said, “No, he didn’t say that.” Asked if he left it up to him, Barr said, “He didn’t say that, either.”
Barr explained, “But that’s generally how the Department of Justice works. Generally, grand juries are to investigate crimes and the prosecutor’s role at the end of the day is binary: Are there charges or no charges, or is this a crime or not?”
Throughout the hearing, Barr said the report would be made public “next week,” adding that he would discuss his decisions about Mueller’s report and his March 24 summary of conclusions only after it was out. He is to testify on May 1 and 2.