WASHINGTON -- Attorney General William Barr, appearing before Congress for a second-straight day Wednesday, suggested that the government spied on President Donald Trump's campaign and said he would look into whether any rules were violated.
With the Russia investigation complete, Barr said he was preparing to review "both the genesis and the conduct of intelligence activities directed at the Trump campaign," including possible improper "spying" by U.S. intelligence agencies.
"I think spying on a political campaign is a big deal," Barr said, adding that he believed "spying did occur." Trump and his allies have accused the FBI and other government officials of abusing their power and starting the Russia investigation to sabotage the president.
"I am not suggesting that those rules were violated, but I think it's important to look at them," Barr said.
Later in the hearing, Barr offered a more tempered description of his concerns, saying that he wanted to understand whether there was "unauthorized surveillance" of political figures.
"I am not saying that improper surveillance occurred. I am saying I am concerned about it, and I am looking into it. That is all."
Barr's reference to "spying" may refer 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 and has denied being a Russian spy.
That warrant included a reference to research that was conducted by an ex-British spy who was funded by Democrats to look into Trump's ties to Russia.
Critics of the Russia investigation say the warrant on Page 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 said that he will work with FBI Director Christopher Wray to examine the origins of the bureau's counterintelligence investigation of the Trump campaign, and that he would soon set up a team for that effort. He noted that Congress and the Justice Department's inspector general have already completed investigations of that matter, and that after reviewing those investigations he would be able to see whether there were any "remaining questions to be addressed."
Democrats immediately seized on Barr's testimony.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi accused him in an interview of doing the president's bidding and said his "spying" comments undermine his position as the nation's top law enforcement official. "He is not the attorney general of Donald Trump. He is the attorney general of the United States," she said.
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 testimony surely pleases Trump but "also strikes another destructive blow to our democratic institutions."
Republicans, meanwhile, praised Barr for looking into the matter. North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, a confidant to Trump who has raised concerns about Justice Department conduct for the past two years, tweeted that Barr's willingness to investigate it is "massive."
Before the hearing Wednesday, Trump claimed he had survived "an attempted coup" and said he no longer cares about the forthcoming release of special counsel Robert Mueller's report because, in his view, he has been exonerated.
Trump said he is hopeful that Barr would reveal "where exactly this all started."
"It was an illegal investigation. It was started illegally. Everything about it was crooked," Trump claimed. "This was an attempted coup. This was an attempted takedown of a president, and we beat them. We beat them."
Mueller was brought on board by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, a Republican and a Trump appointee, shortly after Trump abruptly fired then-FBI director James Comey amid his agency's probe of Russian interference.
OBSTRUCTION OR NOT
At Wednesday's hearing, Barr also shed some additional light on Mueller's decision not to reach a prosecutorial decision about whether Trump criminally obstructed the investigation and his own decision to conclude in his letter to Congress delivering the investigation's conclusions last month that the evidence did not meet that bar.
Barr said he had spoken with Mueller about why he did not reach a decision on obstruction of justice, but declined to offer details of their conversations. The attorney general said Mueller did not explicitly ask that Congress be allowed to judge the evidence and decide for itself, nor did he say that the attorney general should.
"But that is generally how the Department of Justice works," Barr said, saying that the department's job is to make prosecutorial decisions -- and he had.
"I am looking forward to explaining my decision that I briefly outlined in the March 24 letter, but I don't think I can do it until the report is out," he said.
On the timing of the redacted report's release, Barr said Wednesday that he "hoped" to make it public "next week." The answer differed slightly from what he told House lawmakers on Tuesday, that he intended to put out the report "within a week."
He said Justice Department lawyers and members of Mueller's team, who are reviewing the report for sensitive information to black out before release, would not remove information that would harm the "reputational interests" of Trump. Barr also said that he had not overruled Mueller's team on any proposed redactions from the report, and had not discussed with the White House what he was blacking out.
Democrats in the House have slammed Barr for what they view as his refusal to share the investigation's underlying evidence and material he may redact from the report. But Barr told senators Wednesday that he would be willing to re-evaluate that decision to try to accommodate lawmakers' concerns.
"I intend to take up with the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, the chairmen and ranking members of each, what other areas they feel they have a need to have access to the information and see if I can work to accommodate that," he said.
Democratic lawmakers argue that they need such material so they can fully understand the implications of Mueller's findings and judge whether Barr had fairly represented what was found. In the House, they have already approved a subpoena to issue to try to compel the release of this kind of information.
Barr again declined to say whether he had briefed the White House on the fuller Mueller report, even though Justice Department officials had previously said it had not been shown to the White House.
His refusal to say one way or the other raised the possibility that since then, the Justice Department may have briefed Trump or his inner circle about its contents.
"I'm landing the plane right now," Barr said under Democratic questioning. "I have been willing to discuss my letter and the process going forward. The report is going to be out next week and I'm not just going into the details of the process."
Information for this article was contributed by Charlie Savage, Nicholas Fandos and Katie Benner of The New York Times; by John Wagner, Devlin Barrett and Karoun Demirjian of The Washington Post; and by Eric Tucker, Mary Clare Jalonick, Chad Day, Michael Balsamo, Jonathan Lemire, Laurie Kellman and Matthew Daly of The Associated Press.
A Section on 04/11/2019
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