Attorney General William Barr testified in front of Congress for a second straight day on Wednesday and again made news about the Russia investigation. This time, testifying before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee, the attorney general made headlines for comments suggesting he would investigate the president’s political adversaries.
While Barr again reiterated that he viewed the Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 6(e) as limiting his ability to release an unredacted version of the Mueller report to Congress—contrary to historical and legal precedent that Barr himself cited later in his own testimony—the day’s bigger highlight came when the attorney general said that he believe that “spying did occur” against President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign.
“I think spying on a political campaign is a big deal,” Barr said. “There were a lot of rules put in place to make sure that there’s an adequate basis before our law enforcement agencies get involved in political surveillance. I’m not suggesting that those rules were violated, but I think it’s important to look at that.”
When Barr was repeatedly asked by senators from both parties what evidentiary basis he had for saying that possibly illegal surveillance did occur during the 2016 election, the attorney general refused to say. “I believe there is a basis for my concern, but I’m not going to discuss the basis,” Barr told Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran, the Republican chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that heard the testimony.
When asked by Democratic Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island if he had any evidence that the 2016 counterintelligence investigations into people affiliated with the Trump campaign—such as Carter Page, Paul Manafort, George Papadopoulos, and Michael Flynn—involved anything improper, Barr also refused to answer. “I have no specific evidence that I would cite right now,” he said. “I do have questions about it.”
Manafort, Papadopoulos, and Flynn all pleaded guilty to criminal charges in special counsel Robert Mueller’s just-finished probe, while Page has been the subject of multiple Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrants over the years, as recently as 2017.
While Barr didn’t want to discuss any potential evidentiary basis for investigating those who began the inquiries that eventually turned into the Mueller probe, he seemed to reference a DOJ inspector general inquiry into the Page surveillance warrants as well as similar inquiries on Capitol Hill.
“I am going to be reviewing both the genesis and the conduct of intelligence activities directed at the Trump campaign during 2016,” Barr said. “One of the things I want to do is pull together all of the information from the various investigations that have gone on including on the Hill and in the Department and see if there are any remaining questions to be addressed.”
Barr’s current deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein—who was cited in Barr’s recent determination that President Donald Trump had not committed criminal obstruction of justice—personally signed off on at least one of those FISA warrants for Page. Rosenstein has been a regular target of Trump’s ire, though. And there are others who were involved in that FISA process who likely provided potential evidence of obstruction of justice by the president that might be revealed in the coming redacted Mueller report, including former FBI Director James Comey and former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe. (While Barr and Rosenstein stated that they had cleared Trump of criminal obstruction, the Mueller report explicitly said it “does not exonerate” the president of that crime, and Barr indicated that the report lays out evidence on both sides of the question.)
While Barr promised an inquiry, he also noted that it wasn’t necessarily going to be a criminal probe of Trump’s enemies. “There also can be abuses that may not arise to the level of a crime, but that people might think is bad and want to put in rules or prophylaxes against it,” Barr said. “It doesn’t necessarily have to result in a criminal investigation or a finding of a crime.”
Even if the investigation is not a criminal one, throwing the weight of a Department of Justice investigation against Trump’s former interrogators could serve to muddy the waters in the event that the Mueller report is more damaging than Barr’s four-page summary of its principal conclusions has implied.
Further, Barr indicated he would defer to the FBI on questions of criminality. This allows Barr to begin a probe that should offer Trump a politically useful bludgeon against his adversaries, while at the same time passing the buck for the actual outcome of the probe to FBI Director Christopher Wray.
“If it becomes necessary to look over some former officials’ activities, I expect that I’ll be relying heavily on Chris and work closely with him in looking at that information,” Barr said.
Despite Barr’s letter last month professing to exonerate the president, Trump made clear on Wednesday that he will not be letting bygones be bygones for his former interrogators:
For any retribution the president might want to dispense against those who worked on what he characterizes as an “illegal investigation,” he appears to have now found an ally in the Department of Justice.
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