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Barr says he’s starting an inquiry into ‘spying’ on Trump campaign

Attorney General William Barr looked over papers as he appeared before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee.J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Attorney General William Barr says he thinks ‘‘spying did occur’’ against Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

His comments before a Senate panel on Wednesday suggest the origins of the Russia investigation may have been mishandled. Barr’s remarks aligned him with the president at a time when his independence is under scrutiny.

Barr did not say what ‘‘spying’’ may have taken place but seemed to be alluding to a surveillance warrant the FBI obtained on a Trump aide. He later said he wasn’t sure there had been improper surveillance but wanted to make sure proper procedures were followed.

Still, his remarks give a boost to Trump and his supporters who insist his 2016 campaign was unfairly targeted by the FBI.

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Barr was testifying for a second day at congressional budget hearings that were dominated by questions about special counsel Robert Mueller’s Trump-Russia investigation. The attorney general said he expects to release a redacted version of Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the campaign next week.

Democrats have expressed concern that his version will conceal wrongdoing by the president and are frustrated by the four-page summary letter he released last month that they say paints Mueller’s findings in an overly favorable way for the president.

Barr’s testimony on Wednesday further inflamed the Democrats.

In an interview with The Associated Press , House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she didn’t trust Barr and suggested his statements undermined his credibility as America’s chief law enforcement officer.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler of New York tweeted that Barr’s comments ‘‘directly contradict’’ what the Justice Department previously has said. And intelligence committee Chairman Adam Schiff of California said Barr’s comments were sure to please Trump, but strike ‘‘another destructive blow to our democratic institutions.’’

Republicans, meanwhile, praised Barr’s testimony. North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, a Trump confidant who has raised concerns about Justice Department conduct investigating Trump, tweeted that Barr’s willingness to step in is ‘‘massive.’’

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At the Capitol hearing, senators appeared taken aback by his use of the word ‘‘spying.’’ Asked by Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz if he wanted to rephrase his language, Barr said, ‘‘I'm not sure of all the connotations of that word that you’re referring to, but you know, unauthorized surveillance.’’

Barr is an experienced public figure who chooses his words carefully, and it’s not clear if he realized what a political storm he'd create in using the word ‘‘spying.’’ While it could be used to describe lawful and necessary intelligence collection activities, for Trump and his supporters in this case it has an inherently negative meaning.

White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said on Fox Business News that ‘‘People were wiretapped. People were looked into and spied upon. That should be a serious question that the American people should demand answers for and quite frankly so should Congress."

Trump has repeatedly said the investigation of his campaign is an illegal ‘‘witch hunt.’’

On Wednesday he said, ‘‘It was started illegally. Everything about it was crooked. Every single thing about it. There were dirty cops.’’

Though Barr said at his January confirmation hearing that he didn’t believe Mueller would be involved in a witch hunt, he struck a different tone Wednesday and said it ‘‘depends on where you’re sitting.’’

‘‘If you are somebody who’s being falsely accused of something, you would tend to view the investigation as a witch hunt,’’ he said.

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The spying discussion started when Barr was asked by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, about his plans to review his department’s actions in investigating Trump. A separate investigation is being conducted by the department’s inspector general. Barr explained that he considered spying on a political campaign to be a ‘‘big deal,’’ invoking the surveillance of civil rights protesters and then of anti-war protesters during the Vietnam War.

Asked by Shaheen if he was suggesting ‘‘spying’’ had occurred, Barr replied ‘‘spying did occur. Yes, I think spying did occur. The question is whether it was predicated, adequately predicated,’’ meaning whether it was legally justified.

Barr later said that although he did not have specific evidence of wrongdoing, ‘‘I do have questions about it.’’

‘‘I feel I have an obligation to make sure that government power was not abused,’’ he said.

Asked again about spying at the end of the hearing, Barr tempered his tone. ‘‘I am not saying improper surveillance occurred. I am saying I am concerned about it, and I am looking into it,’’ he said.

Barr may have been referring to a secret surveillance warrant that the FBI obtained in the fall of 2016 to monitor the communications of former Trump campaign aide Carter Page, who has not been charged with any wrongdoing. That warrant application included a reference to research by an ex-British spy that was funded by Democrats to examine Trump’s ties to Russia.

Critics of the Russia investigation say the warrant was unjustified and have also seized on anti-Trump text messages sent and received by one of the lead agents involved in investigating whether the Trump campaign was colluding with Russia.

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Barr’s statement Wednesday that he expected to release a redacted version of Mueller’s nearly 400-page report next week marked a slight change from the estimate he gave Tuesday, when he said the release would be within a week.

Though he said the document will be redacted to withhold negative information about peripheral figures in the investigation, he said that would not apply to Trump, an officeholder and someone central to the probe.

Meanwhile, Trump falsely claimed again Wednesday that the Mueller report had found ‘‘no obstruction.’’ While Barr’s letter said the special counsel did not find a criminal conspiracy between Russia and Trump associates during the 2016 election, it also said Mueller had presented evidence on both sides of the obstruction question and ultimately did not reach a conclusion on it.

Barr said he did not believe Mueller’s evidence was sufficient to prove that Trump had obstructed justice.

“I think spying did occur,” Barr told a Senate Appropriations panel on Wednesday. “But the question is whether it was predicated, adequately predicated.” He added: “I need to explore that.”

The comments, confirming a report by Bloomberg News, indicate that Barr is looking into allegations that Republican lawmakers have been pursuing for more than a year -- that the investigation into President Donald Trump and possible collusion with Russia was tainted at the start by anti-Trump bias in the FBI and Justice Department.

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Barr said he wasn’t opening a broad investigation into the FBI -- vouching for the bureau and current Director Christopher Wray -- but added that “there was probably a failure by a group of leaders there at the upper echelon.”

Barr’s inquiry is separate from a long-running investigation by the Justice Department’s inspector general. Barr told a House Appropriations panel on Tuesday that he expected the inspector general’s work to be completed by May or June.

Asked about the prospect of such an inquiry, Trump told reporters Wednesday that he’s most interested in the attorney general “getting started on going back to the origins” of what the president called “an attempted coup.” He said “what they did was treason.”

The issue came up as Barr continued to be pressed by Democrats to give lawmakers Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s full report and the evidence behind it.

“Attempts to hide swaths of the report from public scrutiny along the way will only fuel suspicions” that the Justice Department is “playing the role of President Trump’s defense team,” Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont said at Wednesday’s hearing.

Barr said that after releasing a public version of Mueller’s report -- with some sections redacted -- he will talk to leaders of the Senate and House Judiciary panels about providing them more information. “I’m willing to work with the committees,” he said.

But Republicans remained focused on questions about the origins of the probe. Senator Lindsey Graham, who heads the Senate Judiciary Committee, has already pledged to pursue the issue.

“Once we put the Mueller report to bed, once Barr comes to the committee and takes questions about his findings and his actions, and we get to see the Mueller report, consistent with law, then we are going to turn to finding out how this got off the rails,” he said in a March 28 interview with Fox News.

Some Justice Department officials have argued that a review into the FBI is necessary based on a pattern of actions, including a criminal investigation that agents opened into former Attorney General Jeff Sessions in 2017 for misleading lawmakers about his contacts with Russians when he was a senator advising Trump’s campaign. The case against Sessions was eventually closed without charges.

“That’s great news he’s looking into how this whole thing started back in 2016,” Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, the top Republican on the House Oversight and Reform Committee, said Tuesday of Barr’s interest in the issue. “That’s something that has been really important to us. It’s what we’ve been calling for.”

Before they lost control of the House in last November’s election, Jordan and Republican allies including Devin Nunes of California conducted a two-year campaign to show players in the FBI and Justice Department were out to get Trump.

They interviewed more than 40 witnesses, demanded hundreds of thousands of Justice Department and FBI documents, and held a bombastic hearing in attempts to bring attention to their suspicions.

Republican Representative Robert Aderholt of Alabama asked Barr during Tuesday’s hearing if the Justice Department is investigating “how it came to be that your agency used a salacious and unverified dossier as a predicate for FISA order on a U.S. citizen?”

Aderholt was referring to the “Steele Dossier” that had been put together as opposition research against Trump, including with funding from Democrats.

Congressional Republicans -- and the president -- have alleged that officials improperly relied on that dossier to obtain a secret warrant to spy on former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. They say that was the start of the probe that Trump calls a “witch hunt” and that Mueller took over after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey.

In congressional testimony last year, though, Comey rejected the underlying thesis -- that the Russia investigation was prompted by the dossier. “It was not,” Comey told House lawmakers.

Rather, he said, the probe began with information about a conversation that a Trump campaign foreign policy adviser -- known to be George Papadopoulos -- “had with an individual in London about stolen emails that the Russians had that would be harmful to Hillary Clinton.”