Attorney General William Barr said Wednesday he believes "spying did occur" on President Trump's 2016 campaign.
During testimony before a Senate panel, Barr said it was his obligation to ensure the government did not abuse its surveillance powers and he had set up a team to investigate whether this happened with the Trump campaign.
"I think spying did occur. But the question is whether it was predicated — adequately predicated," Barr testified. "I'm not suggesting it wasn't adequately predicated, but I need to explore that. I think it's my obligation. Congress is usually very concerned about intelligence agencies and law enforcement agencies staying in their proper lane."
Barr was grilled by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Justice Department, on reports he wasassembling a teamto review why the FBI opened a counterintelligence inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 elections.
"I think spying on a political campaign is a big deal. It's a big deal," Barr said, an apparent reference to GOP allegations that the FBI misled the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to monitor former Trump 2016 campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page.
Later in the hearing, Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, asked Barr if he wanted to rephrase the "spying" comment, but Barr declined to back away from his assertion. "Unauthorized surveillance ... is that more appropriate in your eyes?" Barr said.
Barr also alluded to a promise he made during his confirmation hearing to examine "the genesis and the conduct of intelligence activities directed at the Trump campaign." But he said the panel was yet to be formally created, that it wasn't a probe into the FBI, and that he didn't consider there to be an endemic problem with the agency.
"And a lot has already been investigated and is being investigated by the Office of Inspector General at the department," he said. "But one of the things I want to do is pull together all 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 testimony comes as House Intelligence Committee ranking member Devin Nunes, R-Calif., is poised to send to the DOJ criminal referrals targeting eight people tied to the origins of the Trump-Russia investigation.
The FBI'soriginal Russia investigation, which began in July 2016, was later wrapped into special counsel Robert Mueller's inquiry looking into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and possible collusion between Trump's campaign and the Kremlin.
Republicans, including Nunes andRep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., have long been engaged in their own investigations into alleged misconduct and bias within the upper echelons of the Department of Justice and FBI, including the anti-Trump text messages of former FBI officials Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, which they are concerned will reveal a scheme to undermine Trump.
Nunes has not disclosed any names of people ensnared in his referrals, but he did break down three categories in which they fall on Sunday, including conspiracy to lie to Congress and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Nunes also suggested his effort could drastically expand to encompass dozens of people.
In his first hearing of the week on Tuesday, Barr said he has not yet seen these referrals, but when he does, he added, "Obviously, if there is a predicate for investigation, it will be conducted.”
Barr's examination of the initial Russia investigation could intersect with an investigation by U.S. Attorney John Huber, who was appointed by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions in March 2018 to look into GOP claims of FBI misconduct. On the Senate side, Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., says there will be continued investigations into theorigins of Mueller’s inquiry and potential bias in the Justice Department and FBI, including a look atFISA warrants.
Mueller concluded his monthslong Russia investigation last month, after which Barr submitted afour-page letterthat stressed the special counsel did not find evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Barr also said Mueller left the obstruction question unresolved. A line taken from Mueller's final report says, "while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him." Barr said he and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein found there was a lack of “sufficient” evidence to determine whether Trump obstructed justice.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., asked Barr on Wednesday if he had any conversation with Mueller about why he did not reach a conclusion one way or the other on whether Trump obstructed justice. "Yes, I did. And he also has a fuller explanation of that in the report that I'll be making available hopefully next week," Barrreplied.
Barr also clarified when pressed by Shaheenwhether he would redact parts of Mueller's reporton his findings from the federal Russia inquiry to protect Trump's privacy and reputational interests.
"No, I'm talking about people in private life, not public office holders," Barr said.