WASHINGTON — Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report hasn’t even been released yet, but Attorney General William Barr already has plans for another controversial inquiry.
Barr told Congress Wednesday that he plans to review the conduct of the investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia before the 2016 election, saying the probe amounted to “spying” and might have been an abuse of power.
His announcement came on the same day that President Trump described Mueller’s probe as an “attempted coup.” Trump and his supporters on Capitol Hill and cable television have long complained about alleged anti-Trump bias at the FBI. They have increasingly sought to shift the focus, since Mueller finished his work, over to the actions of the investigators themselves.
Barr appeared to give credence to those calls Wednesday, saying that while he has “no specific evidence” of wrongdoing by investigators, he has “a basis for my concern.” He added that he suspected bad apples at the top of the FBI.
“I am going to be reviewing both the genesis and the conduct of intelligence activities directed at the Trump campaign during 2016,” Barr told senators in a hearing Wednesday morning. “I think spying did occur. But the question is whether it was adequately predicated. And I’m not suggesting it wasn’t adequately predicated, but I need to explore that.”
Barr didn’t offer much in the way of proof, however.
“I have no specific evidence that I would cite right now,” Barr told Senators. “I do have questions about it.”
Barr said he thinks there was “probably a failure” among the top leaders at the FBI during the campaign, but cautioned that his review of the available evidence did not amount to an outright investigation of the FBI. He also said, without naming names, that other U.S. government agencies may have been somehow involved.
“I’m not talking about the FBI necessarily, but intelligence agencies more broadly,” he said.
Barr was less certain when it came to weighing in on whether he agrees with Trump that the entire Mueller probe was a “witch hunt,” from the start, saying that “depends on where you’re sitting.” Pressed for his own personal perspective, he demurred. “It is what it is,” he said.
“The top law enforcement officer of the country should not casually suggest that those under his purview engaged in ‘spying’ on a political campaign.”
Barr’s letter last month noted that the Mueller report does not “exonerate” Trump, and Democrats have called to have the full document and underlying evidence released so Mueller’s findings can be fully scrutinized.
Top Congressional Democrats criticized Barr’s comments and demanded to proof for his explosive allegations.
“The top law enforcement officer of the country should not casually suggest that those under his purview engaged in ‘spying’ on a political campaign,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat who heads the House Intelligence Committee. “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.”
The chair of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, asked for a briefing from the DOJ about what exactly Barr meant.
Trump’s supporters in Congress have been clamoring for just such a review for months, while blasting FBI officials involved in the early days of the probe.
Republicans in Congress, such as Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, have asserted that officials in the FBI launched a probe of Trump’s ties to Russia as part of an effort to undermine his campaign, and later his entire presidency.
Those calls to investigate the probe’s origins have been heightened since Barr released a brief four-page letter to Congress last month that said Mueller had not proved that Trump committed any crimes, either by conspiring with Russian agents or obstructing justice.
Several former members of Trump’s inner circle were indicted by Mueller’s team for lying about their ties with Russia, including former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and Trump’s longtime attorney and “fixer” Michael Cohen.
Barr refused to answer a direct question on Wednesday about whether Mueller had found “probable cause” to conclude that Trump may have committed a crime.
“Probable cause is a very low standard for determining whether you start investigating something,” Barr said. “A lot of things have probable cause.”
Cover: Attorney General William Barr is sworn in before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)