Attorney General William Barr declared Wednesday he thinks "spying did occur" against Donald Trump's presidential campaign, suggesting the origins of the Russia investigation may have been mishandled in remarks that aligned him with the president at a time when Barr's independence is under scrutiny.
Barr, appearing before a Senate panel, did not say what "spying" may have taken place but seemed to be alluding to a surveillance warrant the FBI obtained on a former Trump associate. He later said he wasn't sure there had been improper surveillance but wanted to make sure proper procedures were followed. Still, his remarks give a boost to Trump and his supporters who insist his 2016 campaign was unfairly targeted by the FBI.
Barr was testifying for a second day at congressional budget hearings that were dominated by questions about special counsel Robert Mueller's Trump-Russia investigation. His statements further inflamed Democrats already frustrated by Barr's handling of the Mueller report, including his release of a four-page summary letter last month that they say paints the special counsel's findings in an overly favorable way for the president. The attorney general said he expects to release a redacted version of Mueller's report on Russian interference in the campaign next week.
In an interview with The Associated Press , House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she didn't trust Barr and suggested his statements undermined his credibility as America's chief law enforcement officer.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler of New York tweeted that Barr's comments "directly contradict" what the Justice Department previously has said. And intelligence committee Chairman Adam Schiff of California said Barr's comments were sure to please Trump, but strike "another destructive blow to our democratic institutions."
Republicans, meanwhile, praised Barr's testimony. North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, a Trump confidant who has raised concerns about Justice Department conduct, tweeted that Barr's willingness to step in is "massive." The attorney general said he would investigate the origins and conduct of the early days of the Russia investigation, a probe separate from an existing inspector general inquiry.
At the Capitol hearing, senators appeared taken aback by his use of the word "spying." Asked by Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz if he wanted to rephrase his language, Barr said he simply wanted to make sure there was "no authorized surveillance."
"Is that more appropriate in your mind?" he asked the senator.
Barr is an experienced public figure who chooses his words carefully, and it's not clear if he realized what a political storm he'd create in using the word "spying." While the word could be used to describe lawful and necessary intelligence collection activities, for Trump and his supporters in this case it has an inherently negative meaning.
White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said on Fox Business Network that "People were wiretapped. People were looked into and spied upon. That should be a serious question that the American people should demand answers for and quite frankly so should Congress."
Trump has repeatedly said the investigation of his campaign is an illegal "witch hunt."
On Wednesday he said, "It was started illegally. Everything about it was crooked. Every single thing about it. There were dirty cops."
Though Barr said at his January confirmation hearing that he didn't believe Mueller would be involved in a witch hunt, he struck a different tone Wednesday and said it "depends on where you're sitting."
"If you are somebody who's being falsely accused of something, you would tend to view the investigation as a witch hunt," he said.
The spying discussion started when Barr was asked by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, about his plans to review his department's actions in investigating Trump. A separate investigation is being conducted by the department's inspector general. Barr explained that he considered spying on a political campaign to be a "big deal," invoking the surveillance of civil rights protesters and then of anti-war protesters during the Vietnam War.
Asked by Shaheen if he was suggesting "spying" had occurred, Barr replied "spying did occur. Yes, I think spying did occur. The question is whether it was predicated, adequately predicated," meaning whether it was legally justified.
Barr later said that although he did not have specific evidence of wrongdoing, "I do have questions about it."
"I feel I have an obligation to make sure that government power was not abused," he said.
Asked again about spying at the end of the hearing, Barr tempered his tone. "I am not saying improper surveillance occurred. I am saying I am concerned about it, and I am looking into it," he said.
Barr may have been referring to a secret surveillance warrant that the FBI obtained in the fall of 2016 to monitor the communications of former Trump campaign aide Carter Page, who has not been charged with any wrongdoing. That warrant application included a reference to research by an ex-British spy that was funded by Democrats to examine Trump's ties to Russia.
Critics of the Russia investigation say the warrant was unjustified and have also seized on anti-Trump text messages sent and received by one of the lead agents involved in investigating whether the Trump campaign was colluding with Russia.
Barr's statement Wednesday that he expected to release a redacted version of Mueller's nearly 400-page report next week marked a slight change from the estimate he gave Tuesday, when he said the release would be within a week.
Though he said the document will be redacted to withhold negative information about peripheral figures in the investigation, he said that would not apply to Trump, an officeholder and someone central to the probe.
Meanwhile, Trump falsely claimed again Wednesday that the Mueller report had found "no obstruction." While Barr's letter said the special counsel did not find a criminal conspiracy between Russia and Trump associates during the 2016 election, it also said Mueller had presented evidence on both sides of the obstruction question and ultimately did not reach a conclusion on it.
Barr said he did not believe Mueller's evidence was sufficient to prove that Trump had obstructed justice.