In a contentious hearing on Wednesday morning, Attorney General William Barr claimed that the FBI had been “spying” on Donald Trump’s 2016 political campaign — but said he couldn’t cite evidence to support the claim. It was the latest in a series of missteps this week in which the attorney general has impugned his own reputation for fairness and created the specter that he is merely trying to score partisan points.
“I think spying on a political campaign is a big deal,” Barr testified to the Senate Appropriations Committee. “I think spying did occur… I believe there is a basis for my concern, but I’m not going to discuss the basis.”
The claim echoes President Donald Trump and his far-right defenders, who have claimed, also without evidence, that the premise of the special counsel investigation was based on false information or a false premise.
The notion that the FBI was “spying” on Trump’s campaign has long been a mainstay of right-wing talking points, with Trump even claiming at one point that the Obama administration had his “wires tapped.”
Wow, word seems to be coming out that the Obama FBI “SPIED ON THE TRUMP CAMPAIGN WITH AN EMBEDDED INFORMANT.” Andrew McCarthy says, “There’s probably no doubt that they had at least one confidential informant in the campaign.” If so, this is bigger than Watergate!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 17, 2018
There is no evidence that the Obama administration, or anyone within the FBI, was “spying” on Trump or his campaign. In his own sworn congressional testimony in December 2018, former FBI Director James Comey categorically rejected the notion that the FBI would have spied on the Trump campaign, adding “no one would dare ask me or anybody else at the FBI that because they know the reaction, which would be not only no, but hell no.”
Wednesday’s politically-tinged testimony is the latest blow to Barr’s credibility. Barr’s office did not respond to ThinkProgress’ request for comment.
Barr’s claim follows weeks of questions about his short summary analysis of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Barr attempted to summarize Mueller’s report — which reportedly is as long as 400 pages — in four pages. Barr said that the memo exonerated the president from both collusion with Russia and allegations of obstruction of justice, even though he wrote that the report made no definitive conclusion on the question of obstruction.
However, members of Mueller’s investigative team, who have been famously tight-lipped with media, objected publicly to this characterization of their work. As multiple outlets reported, those who worked with Mueller to investigate potential collusion and obstruction of justice claimed the full report was far more damning than Barr let on.
Members of Mueller’s team also noted that they had drafted their own summaries — which wouldn’t have required any redaction and were intended for swift public release — which Barr opted not to release.
When criticism of Barr’s summary began rolling in earlier this month, the attorney general proceeded to claim that his summary was, in fact, not actually a summary. Rather, according to a statement from the Justice Department, Barr’s letter was simply a compilation of Mueller’s “bottom-line findings” and “conclusions.”
Although the investigation concluded March 22, Barr says his office and the special counsel are working on redactions in order to expedite the release of Mueller’s report. Barr has very broad discretion over what information he can redact: One category of redactions, according to Barr, will include “information that would unduly infringe on the personal privacy and reputational interests of peripheral third parties.”
Barr has also refused to release an unredacted report to members of Congress — raising questions about why he would prevent the legislative branch from accessing the full report.
In another move undercutting his credibility, Barr on Wednesday refused to say whether or not he’d briefed the White House on the entirety of the Mueller report’s contents.
“I think Barr lost a lot of credibility and support, which he compounded yesterday and today by declining to explain what he did and why he did it,” David Dorsen, former assistant chief counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee, told ThinkProgress in an interview.
Barr’s vague claim about “spying” also references the origins of Barr’s appointment as attorney general in the first place. While working in the private sector, Barr sent an unprompted letter to the Justice Department criticizing the genesis of the special counsel investigation. Mueller was appointed after the president fired Comey because he was dissatisfied with his handling of the FBI’s investigation into Russian election meddling.
But Trump’s far-right defenders, such as Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), have claimed Mueller’s appointment was the result of shadowy spying operations apparently directed at the Trump campaign, and that false information had been used to justify the investigation.
Congressional Democrats immediately called out Barr’s spying claim. On Twitter, Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) said that Barr “knows there was ample evidence of Russian attempts to infiltrate the Trump campaign and that the FBI took lawful action to stop it. Giving a wink and a nod to this long-debunked ‘spying’ conspiracy theory is irresponsible.”
Mr. Barr knows how counter-intel investigations work. He knows there was ample evidence of Russian attempts to infiltrate the Trump campaign and that the FBI took lawful action to stop it. Giving a wink and a nod to this long-debunked “spying” conspiracy theory is irresponsible.
— Mark Warner (@MarkWarner) April 10, 2019
In the House, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) released a similar statement. “The top law enforcement officer of the country should not casually suggest that those under his purview engaged in ‘spying’ on a political campaign,” Schiff said. “This type of partisan talking point may please Donald Trump, who rails against a ‘deep state coup,’ but it also strikes another destructive blow to our democratic institutions.”
For Dorsen, the White House’s attacks on institutions like the Justice Department, the FBI, and Congress are especially concerning — especially when those attacks are lobbed at an investigation designed to investigate serious threats against American democracy.
“I think that the present situation is much more serious than Watergate,” he said.