Congressional Democrats are furious over Attorney General William Barr’s statement Wednesday that Donald Trump’s campaign was spied on, accusing the attorney general of mischaracterizing the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation in an effort to please President Donald Trump.
Barr’s comments are likely to ratchet up Democrats’ unease over the attorney general that’s already simmering over Barr’s role in the Mueller investigation and the decision there wasn’t sufficient evidence to prosecute obstruction of justice.
“I’m amazed that the AG would make that kind of statement, I think it’s in many ways disrespectful to the men and women who work in the DOJ, and it shows, I think, either a lack of understanding or willful ignorance on what goes into a counterintelligence investigation,” Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told CNN.
“He almost seems to be endorsing one of these theories that has been debunked time and time again by the various, even House Republican-led, investigations trying to show some kind of resentment,” Warner added.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said of Barr’s testimony that he was “going off the rails.”
“He is the Attorney General of the United States, not the attorney general of Donald Trump,” she said.
But Republicans who have already been investigating the origins of the FBI’s investigation into Trump’s team and Russia praised Barr’s comments, saying they welcomed his plans to review the matter.
“I say God bless him,” said Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, the top Republican on the House Oversight Committee. “I’ve been very impressed with the attorney general. He said (Tuesday) in the hearing in front of the appropriations subcommittee that he’s going to go back to the beginning, back to the summer of 2016 and examine what took place. I think that’s exactly what needs to happen.”
Trump said Wednesday that Barr was doing a “great job” and “getting started on going back to the origins on where exactly this all started because it was an illegal witch hunt.”
‘Spying did occur, yes’
At a Senate subcommittee hearing Wednesday, Barr explained that he would review the beginning of the counterintelligence investigation because “I think spying on a political campaign is a big deal.”
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat, asked whether he was suggesting there was spying, and Barr responded: “Spying did occur, yes. I think spying did occur.”
Later, Barr was asked twice whether he wanted to clarify his statement. Barr first said he wanted to make sure no “unauthorized surveillance” occurred, and then offered up his own clarification at the conclusion of the hearing.
“I just want to make it clear, thinking back on all the different colloquies here, that 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.”
When Barr spoke of “spying,” according to a source familiar with his thinking, he meant it in the “classic sense” of intelligence collection. The source said Barr doesn’t view the term as “pejorative” and is focused on where there was proper “predication” for any surveillance.
The source said Barr did not use the term “spying” in order to throw red meat to Trump and those who have voiced concerns over surveillance tactics.
But that did little to satisfy Democrats who are already threatening to subpoena the Justice Department if Barr will not provide them the full, unredacted Mueller report and underlying evidence.
“These comments directly contradict what DOJ previously told us,” tweeted House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, who authorized the subpoena for the Mueller report. “I’ve asked DOJ to brief us immediately.”
“The top law enforcement officer of the country should not casually suggest that those under his purview engaged in ‘spying’ on a political campaign,” said House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, a California Democrat. “This type of partisan talking point may please Donald Trump, who rails against a ‘deep state coup,’ but it also strikes another destructive blow to our democratic institutions.
Since Barr released his summary of Mueller’s principal conclusions, Republicans have gone on offense attacking Democrats for repeatedly claiming that Mueller would find collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia.
Several Democrats have said they can’t trust Barr to accurately convey Mueller’s report, given that he’s a Trump political appointee, and want to wait to read Mueller’s full documents before they come to a judgment on the question of collusion.
“I’m not going to comment on what the Mueller conclusions are until I look at them,” Warner said. “I spent two years trying to defend the Mueller investigation, I should get the chance to review that report before I make any comments on those conclusions.”
Questions over spying
Barr’s comments are not the first time questions about FBI spying on the Trump campaign have been raised.
Republicans have accused the FBI of abusing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in obtaining a FISA warrant on former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, accusing the FBI and Justice Department of hiding the political leanings of the opposition research dossier that was included in the warrant.
Former FBI Director James Comey confirmed in closed-door congressional testimony last year that the FBI opened its counterintelligence investigation in 2016 into four individuals who worked on the Trump campaign, but not the Trump campaign itself.
Trump and congressional Republicans also accused the FBI of spying on the Trump campaign over the use of confidential intelligence sources in 2016, amid an effort from then-Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes for Congress to access classified documents on the matter.
But one of the key Republicans reviewing the matter, former South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy, said at the time that the FBI “did exactly what my fellow citizens would want them to do when they got the information they got.”
Justice Department inspector general Michael Horowitz is currently reviewing the FBI and Justice Department’s actions during the Russia investigation. Barr said Tuesday that Horowitz’s investigation is likely to be completed in May or June. The issue is also something that Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham has vowed to investigate, picking up on the Republican-led investigations in the House from the last Congress.
On Wednesday, Graham, a South Carolina Republican, asked Barr why the Justice Department never briefed the Trump campaign that it “may be targeted by a foreign entity?”
“That is one of the questions I have, is, I feel normally, the campaign would have been advised of this,” Barr said. “I am interested in getting that answered. They had two former US attorneys in Chris Christie and Rudy Giuliani involved in the campaign, and I don’t understand why the campaign was not advised.”
CNN and others have reported that senior US intelligence officials told Trump in August 2016 that foreign adversaries – including Russia – would likely attempt to infiltrate his team or gather intelligence about his campaign.
Asked afterward about Barr’s comments, Graham aligned himself with Barr’s comments on the need to investigate whether the Trump campaign was spied on.
“Somebody needs to look at it, and I hope we will,” Graham said.
This story has been updated with additional developments Wednesday.
CNN’s Ashley Killough, Laura Jarrett and Marshall Cohen contributed to this report.