WASHINGTON — Attorney General William Barr testified Wednesday that he believes the Obama administration spied on the 2016 Trump campaign, though he declined to elaborate.
“I think spying on a political campaign is a big deal. It’s a big deal,” Barr told the Senate Appropriations Committee, saying he has asked the Justice Department to look into the issues.
Trump has complained frequently that the Obama administration spied on his campaign to undermine his chances. He dubbed it “Spygate” in a tweet last May.
Most observers wrote the charge off as a kooky conspiracy theory because news that the administration was probing Russian contacts with Trump’s campaign did not emerge until after the election.
Barr comparing the situation to the Vietnam war era, when the FBI spied on activists.
“People were all concerned about spying on anti-war people and so forth by the government, and there were a lot of rules put in place to make sure there’s an adequate basis before our law enforcement agencies get involved in political surveillance,” Barr said.
Asked by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) if he really believed spying occurred, Barr was unequivocal.
“I think spying did occur,” Barr said, briefly rendering Shaheen speechless.
Barr did not detail the spying, but he could be referring to the foreign intelligence surveillance warrant obtain against former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.
Barr said the real question was whether there was a legal basis for the alleged spying.
“I need to explore that. I think it’s my obligation,” Barr said. “Congress is usually very concerned about intelligence agencies and law enforcement agencies staying in their proper lane.”
Barr said he was not pulling together a formal investigation, as some reporters has indicated, but he said he was planning on having several people “pull all this information together and letting me know whether there are some areas that should be looked at.”
“This is not launching an investigation of the FBI,” he insisted. “I think there was probably a failure among a group of leaders there at the upper echelon.”
Former FBI Director James Comey and his deputy, Andrew McCabe, have been favorite targets of President Trump.
“I feel I have an obligation to make sure that government power is not abused,” Barr said. “I think that’s one of the principal roles of the attorney general.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has also called for an investigation into the Obama administration actions, asked Barr if it would be “odd” for Trump’s campaign to not be told about the counterintelligence investigation, arguing that the point should be to protect the target of a foreign attack, not prosecute them.
“They had two former U.S. attorneys in Chris Christie and Rudy Giuliani, involved in the campaign, and I don’t understand why the campaign was not advised,” Barr said.
Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) pressed Barr to make sure he was certain about his word choice in describing what he was looking into.
“I think the word ‘spying’ could cause everybody in the cable news ecosystem to freak out,” Schatz said.
Barr didn’t retract anything, but offered an alternate phrase.
“I’m not sure of all the connotations of that word that you’re referring to, but unauthorized surveillance — I want to make sure there was no unauthorized surveillance. Is that more appropriate in your mind?” Barr said.
At the end of the hearing, Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) wanted to know the basis of Barr’s suspicion that spying occurred, but the Attorney General wouldn’t dish.
“I believe there is a basis for my concern, but I’m not going to discuss the basis,” Barr said.
Democrats on the other side of the Hill seemed as surprised as Shaheen, and accused the attorney general of partisanship.
“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 Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.). “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.”
Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, promised on Twitter that he would seek more information on the charge.
“These comments directly contradict what DOJ previously told us. I’ve asked DOJ to brief us immediately,” Nadler said.
Congress had spent two years under the Republican-led House investigating such allegations “ad nauseam,” a Nadler spokesman said.