The US attorney general, William Barr, has alleged that Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign was spied on during Barack Obama’s administration, reigniting a fierce dispute over the origins of the Trump-Russia investigation.
“I think spying did occur,” Barr told a Senate subcommittee in Washington. The attorney general confirmed that he had requested a review of the FBI’s decision to secretly investigate whether Trump associates were conspiring with Moscow in 2016.
“I think spying on a political campaign is a big deal,” Barr said.
Barr’s remarks, which echoed wild claims by Trump that he was wiretapped by Obama, dismayed senior Democrats. Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, later said Barr had gone “off the rails” and was serving Trump rather than the public.
Under sharp questioning by senators, Barr said he was not alleging that “improper surveillance” had in fact been carried out, but said he was concerned about the actions of senior FBI officials. He declined to give details.
“I believe there is a basis for my concern, but I’m not going to discuss the basis,” Barr said. He said he had an obligation to make sure “government power is not abused”.
It was not clear on Wednesday whether Barr’s concerns related to previously undisclosed information about the early days of the Trump-Russia investigation.
US intelligence agencies are known to have placed Carter Page, a former Trump campaign adviser suspected of having been targeted by Russian intelligence, under court-authorized surveillance after he left Trump’s campaign in 2016.
Another Trump campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos, was approached in England during the election campaign by a veteran academic with ties to US intelligence, after Papadopoulos told an Australian diplomat that Russia had obtained emails from Democratic official
Barr’s new intervention raised fresh concerns among Democrats about his handling of the report by Robert Mueller, the special counsel, into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and any connections to Trump’s team. Barr said on Wednesday that he expected to release a redacted version of Mueller’s report next week.
Mueller was appointed to take over the investigation after Trump fired James Comey, the FBI director who had been leading it, in May 2017. Comey blamed his dismissal on his decision to resist pressure from Trump to drop a related inquiry into Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser.
The attorney general last month released a four-page summary of Mueller’s investigation report. He announced that Mueller did not find Trump’s campaign conspired with Russia, and that Mueller declined to make a decision on whether Trump obstructed justice by firing Comey and taking other actions.
Barr and Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, decided to make the call, and said Trump had not obstructed justice. Barr’s decision startled some in Washington who thought the decision should have been left to Congress.
Trump seized on Barr’s summary to claim, incorrectly, that he had been completely exonerated by Mueller. The president had for months aggressively denounced the inquiry as a “witch-hunt” by political enemies.
Barr on Wednesday declined to disagree with Trump’s assessment of the investigation. Asked by Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island whether the Mueller investigation had been an illegal witch-hunt, Barr said: “It really depends on where you’re sitting.”
His remarks about spying supported allegations made repeatedly by Trump, from which even Republican congressmen briefed on the origins of the FBI investigation had distanced themselves.
The president claimed without evidence last year that an FBI mole had been “implanted, for political purposes” within his campaign to undermine it.
In March 2017, Trump accused US agencies under his predecessor of “wire-tapping” the Trump Tower offices in New York before the election in November 2016. He claimed Obama had overseen a “Nixon/Watergate”-style intervention. The claim was met with incredulity and some derision by many
Earlier on Wednesday, Trump again harshly attacked the launch of the federal investigation into Russian meddling, which he described as “an attempted coup”. He accused those involved of treason.
Pelosi said she did not trust Barr, and suggested his statements undermined his independence as the nation’s top law enforcement officer. “He is not the attorney general of Donald Trump. He is the attorney general of the United States,” Pelosi told reporters. “I don’t trust Barr, I trust Mueller.”
Eric Holder, the attorney general under Obama from 2009 to 2015, defended the actions of the investigators in a tweet following Barr’s testimony.
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