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Barr: I think FBI ‘spying did occur’ on Trump campaign

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Democrats expressed deep concern that the attorney general was doing the president’s bidding with ‘incendiary’ remarks.

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Attorney General William Barr on Wednesday appeared to back up President Donald Trump’s assertion that the Justice Department “spied” on his presidential campaign, injecting renewed skepticism about the origins of the Russia probe as he prepares to release a redacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report.

During his second day of Capitol Hill testimony this week, the attorney general also suggested that the Justice Department was gearing up to investigate the origins of the counterintelligence probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election — a key rallying cry for Trump and his congressional allies that comes amid the president’s consistent claims that the Mueller report exonerates him.

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“Spying on a political campaign is a big deal,” Barr told members of a Senate Appropriations subcommittee during a hearing about the Justice Department’s budget. “I think spying did occur. The question is whether it was adequately predicated. And I’m not suggesting that it wasn’t adequately predicated. But I need to explore that.”

Barr’s statements are certain to please Trump, who said earlier Wednesday that the FBI’s decision to launch such an investigation amounted to an “attempted coup.” The president has long decried the counterintelligence probe as a “witch hunt” that was launched by officials who were biased against him, citing the approval of a surveillance warrant for Carter Page, a former foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign.

There is no evidence that officials were “spying” on the president’s campaign, and the warrant was approved after Page had left the campaign. The Justice Department’s inspector general is already investigating whether the warrant process was abused. Barr previously said that probe was slated to wrap up in May or June.

“I have no specific evidence that I would cite right now,” Barr later said. “I do have questions about it.”

When pressed by Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) about his use of the word “spying,” Barr clarified: “I want to make sure there was no unauthorized surveillance.”

“I am not saying that improper surveillance occurred. I am saying I am concerned about it and looking into it,” Barr added. “I believe there is a basis for my concern. But I’m not going to discuss the basis.”

The attorney general said he has not yet set up a team to investigate the origins of the probe. While Barr said he would not be launching an investigation into the FBI over the alleged spying, he said it was likely that there was a “failure among a group of leaders there at the upper echelon.”

“I do not view it as a problem that is endemic to the FBI,” Barr said.

Congressional Democrats said Barr’s comments suggested that he was trying to do Trump’s bidding.

“It’s very concerning when the top law enforcement officer in the country uses incendiary language like that. That’s the kind of thing you hear the president say at his rallies, when he’s advocating a deep-state coup attempt. It ought to concern all of us,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) told POLITICO.

“He was unclear in his remarks,” Schiff added. “But all Americans should be concerned if this represents what we urge new democracies not to do and that is when you win, investigate or persecute your political rivals.”

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) said Barr’s remarks “directly contradict what DOJ previously told us,” adding that he has asked the Justice Department for an immediate briefing.

Barr’s Senate testimony was his second Capitol Hill appearance in as many days, as the attorney general prepares to release a redacted version of Mueller’s highly anticipated report within the next week.

Barr infuriated lawmakers on Tuesday when he said he would not turn over the report to Congress, defying Democrats’ demands to see not only Mueller’s full report but also the underlying evidence. The attorney general also said he would not seek a court order to release top-secret grand jury information, and that Congress has no inherent authority to view grand jury information.

Attorney General Barr lays out timeline and redaction categories for Mueller report

On Wednesday, Barr promised again to work with Nadler and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) if they seek to view some of the redacted portions of the report. But he said grand jury information is the “most inflexible” category for a speedy release.

“I am willing to work with the Judiciary committees to see if there is a workaround that could address any concerns or needs that they have,” Barr said.

Barr told senators that one of his four categories for redactions — to protect the reputations and privacy of “peripheral third parties” — would not apply to the president, who has changed his tune in recent days about his desire to see the full report made public.

“No,” Barr said when Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) asked if he would redact damaging information about the president. Barr said those redactions only apply to “people in private life, not public officeholders.”

In his four-page summary, Barr wrote that Mueller could not establish that the Trump campaign conspired with the Russian government to influence the outcome of the 2016 election. Barr also noted that Mueller uncovered evidence of obstruction of justice on the part of the president, but he dismissed the possibility of filing charges, saying it wasn’t clear that Trump’s “intent” was to obstruct the investigation.

Barr told Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) that he had a conversation with Mueller about why he did not reach a conclusion on the obstruction question. When asked if Mueller sought to leave it to Congress to decide whether Trump obstructed justice, Barr said: “He didn’t say that to me.” When asked if Mueller believed the decision should be up to the attorney general, Barr said: “He didn’t say that either. But that’s generally how the Department of Justice works.”

Barr declined to go into further detail, citing the imminent release of the redacted report. But he later said Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein — who helped Barr prepare the four-page memo — agreed with his conclusion on obstruction. Barr said he did not know whether Mueller himself backed that conclusion.

Nadler said Tuesday he would hold off on issuing a subpoena for the full report and the underlying evidence, but that he expects to issue one “in short order.” The committee voted last week to give Nadler the authority to subpoena the report.

Martin Matishak contributed to this report.

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