For two years, President Trump’s most devoted allies have struggled to legitimize their accusations that the FBI conducted political spying on the Trump campaign in 2016 — at times openly feuding with Republican leaders over their grievances with the investigation of Russia’s election interference.
But on Wednesday, those assertions received their biggest boost yet, and from an unlikely source: Attorney General William P. Barr, who told a Senate subcommittee, “I think spying did occur, yes.”
Never mind that he later clarified that his use of the word was meant to describe surveillance generally, without making a judgment about whether it was appropriate. The moment set off a firestorm, with those who have defended the FBI complaining that the attorney general had legitimized an outlandish conspiracy theory — while those critical of the Russia probe have embraced his remarks as vindication of their cause.
The reaction has underscored a deep distrust between Trump’s allies and top law enforcement officials, and between the Justice Department’s current and past leadership. And it has amplified the anxiety surrounding special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report on the Russia investigation, a redacted version of which could be released within days.
“I just see it as a confirmation of the clear reality that sensible people have realized for a long time,” said Carter Page, the former Trump campaign adviser whose communications were secretly surveilled in late 2016 and early 2017 under a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Page said he hoped Barr can fix what he characterized as the Justice Department’s “extensive wrongdoing and unconscionable practices.”
Trump’s allies in Congress have seized on Barr’s testimony to once again demand an “investigation of the investigator.” The president’s reelection campaign, meanwhile, is selling T-shirts depicting former president Barack Obama lurking in thick green shrubbery with a set of spy glasses. An advertisement circulated Friday night read: “AG Barr believes the Obama Admin illegally spied on Pres Trump. We Need Answers! Fight Back!”
George Terwilliger, who served with Barr in the Justice Department during the 1990s, defended the attorney general’s word choice, saying the term spying “covers a lot of ground,” and that “in common usage, frankly including in the press, it doesn’t just mean surveillance or electronic surveillance, it means the use of a variety of techniques” to obtain information and gather intelligence.
“I think to use an all-encompassing term like that was appropriate,” Terwilliger said.
Yet for those who worked on the Russia probe and other high-profile political investigations, Barr’s words were a below-the-belt attack. Current and former law enforcement officials have denied engaging in political spying, and they’ve said the investigation was conducted professionally based on available evidence.
“It was highly irresponsible for the attorney general to have used such language,” said David Laufman, a former senior Justice Department national security official.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), said the attorney general “just destroyed . . . the scintilla of credibility that he had left in terms of being a fair and impartial person,” adding that Barr was using “the words of conspiracy theorists” by suggesting there was inappropriate spying.
“We have very little faith that he’s going to be fair and dispassionate in terms of the redactions in the report,” Schumer said.
Current and former law enforcement officials have said the Russia investigation began in late July 2016, when a tip from a foreign diplomat led to concerns that George Papadopoulos, then a Trump campaign adviser, might have knowledge of Russian hacking efforts targeting Democrat Hillary Clinton to benefit the Trump campaign. Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee agreed with that timeline and noted as much in a report issued last year after reviewing the investigation.
Trump and his supporters have argued the investigation grew from different information — what they call flimsy and false allegations delivered to the FBI in a dossier of memos written by a former British intelligence officer. That document was the product of an opposition research project funded by a lawyer for the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign.
And while Trump’s supporters maintain that politically funded research played a significant role in justifying the FBI’s investigation of Trump and those close to him, current and former law enforcement officials insist they followed the rules, and that they would have been negligent not to investigate the alarming information they had received about a possible conspiracy between the Kremlin and Trump associates.
“The FBI and the Justice Department were working strenuously to learn as much as possible, as quickly as possible, about the activities of a hostile foreign power to subvert our democratic system, and to characterize such efforts as ‘spying on a campaign’ both minimizes the seriousness of that threat and unfairly casts the efforts to counter it in a derogatory light,” Laufman said.
“The attorney general’s use of language similar to the inflammatory rhetoric used by the president and his political supporters now casts him in a distinctly more political light undermining public confidence in the independence and integrity of the department,’’ he said.
James B. Comey, who led the FBI when it opened the Russia investigation, expressed surprise at Barr’s comments.
“I really don’t know what he’s talking about when he talks about spying on the campaign,” Comey said Thursday at a Hewlett Foundation conference. “It’s concerning because the FBI and the Department of Justice conduct court-ordered electronic surveillance. I have never thought of that as spying. . . . If the attorney general has come to the belief that that should be called spying, wow.”
How the Russia case was investigated and how investigators sought court approval to intercept Page’s communications are now the subject of a far-reaching internal investigation by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz. Barr said the results of that work could appear by May or June.
One area under examination is whether there are enough rules inside the Justice Department and FBI for investigations surrounding presidential candidates, according to people familiar with the matter. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing inquiry.
Barr said he is also making his own inquiries into the issue because he is concerned intelligence agencies may have crossed ethical lines established during the 1970s to prevent surveillance on purely political activity. Pressed by Democrats during his testimony to say whether he had any evidence to justify his concerns, Barr said, “I have no specific evidence that I would cite right now,” leaving open the possibility that he might do so at a later date.
Barr’s “spying” comments follow his late-March disclosure to Congress that Mueller did not establish a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin and did not reach a conclusion on whether Trump sought to obstruct justice during the investigation of his 2016 campaign. Barr said he and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein weighed the evidence and found it insufficient to allege that Trump had obstructed justice.
The results of the investigation — combined with Barr’s suggestion that law enforcement may have done something questionable in initiating the Russia probe — creates a one-two punch that Republicans say puts them in the best position to combat whatever damaging information about the president may be contained in Mueller’s report.
In his letter to Congress, Barr said “most” of Trump’s actions that were scrutinized as potential obstruction of justice have “been the subject of public reports”— suggesting the full 400-page document is likely to produce at least some revelations.
Trump’s allies are already shifting their focus to the investigation’s origins.
Last week, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), former chair of the House Intelligence Committee, revealed plans to refer eight people to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution, specifically citing the FBI’s moves to obtain a surveillance warrant. He declined to identify whom he would name, but Nunes said he will meet with Barr to discuss his referrals.
Trump’s other top congressional allies, Reps. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), have also been working with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) on his plans to probe whether any anti-Trump bias existed and influenced law enforcement’s actions in investigating the Trump campaign.
They’re also calling on Horowitz to testify before Congress.
“Accountability is certainly appropriate,” said Meadows, who alleged that there were “broken protocols at the Department of Justice” where Trump was concerned. “Attorney General Barr is dedicated to restoring the full reputation of the FBI and DOJ — even if it might be painful in the short run.”
When Republicans controlled the House last Congress, Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) tried to keep at bay the push by Meadows, Jordan and Nunes to aggressively investigate the origins of the Russia inquiry. With Ryan gone and Barr at Justice, Trump’s allies feel more confident their allegations will be taken seriously.
Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.