- Attorney General William Barr told lawmakers on Wednesday that he would review whether the FBI spied on the 2016 Trump campaign.
- “I think spying on a political campaign is a big deal,” Barr said, adding that he believed “spying did occur.”
- The FBI obtained a warrant to surveil the former Trump campaign aide Carter Page during the election. It also reportedly used an “informant” when investigating the campaign’s links to Russia.
- President Donald Trump and his GOP allies latched on to the revelations and said they proved the Justice Department and the FBI illegally spied on his campaign.
- There is no evidence, however, that either agency acted improperly or violated any rules while investigating the Trump campaign, which Barr acknowledged during the hearing.
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Attorney General William Barr said Wednesday that he would review whether the FBI was “spying” on the Trump campaign during the 2016 election.
Barr made the revelation when appearing for a budget hearing before a Senate appropriations subcommittee.
Barr told lawmakers that when the FBI’s Russia investigation, which was spearheaded by the special counsel Robert Mueller, was over, he would examine “both the genesis and the conduct of intelligence activities directed at the Trump campaign.”
“I think spying on a political campaign is a big deal,” Barr said, adding that he believed “spying did occur.”
The attorney general walked back his comments near the end of the hearing, saying that when he mentioned “spying,” he meant “unauthorised surveillance.”
President Donald Trump and his Republican allies in Congress have long accused the Justice Department and the FBI of illegally surveilling his campaign and aides. Their accusations came after The New York Times reported last year that the FBI used an “informant” while investigating Trump’s ties to Russia during the 2016 election.
The president and GOP lawmakers also sounded the alarm after it surfaced that the FBI obtained a warrant from a judge to surveil the former Trump campaign aide Carter Page under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
To date, there is no evidence that the DOJ or the FBI acted improperly while investigating Trump’s campaign. When lawmakers pressed Barr on that during Wednesday’s hearing, he acknowledged as much, saying, “I have no specific evidence that I would cite right now, I do have questions about it.”
Several key players in Trump’s orbit are known to have ties to Russia, including Page, the former national security adviser Michael Flynn, the former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, and the former deputy campaign chairman Rick Gates.
Republicans often falsely claim that the Russia investigation was launched using the unverified Steele dossier, a collection of opposition research that was first funded by Republicans and later by Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
It emerged in 2017 that the bureau opened the investigation after it learned that a former Trump campaign aide, George Papadopoulos, had boasted about Russia having dirt on the Clinton campaign in the form of “thousands of emails,” two months before WikiLeaks published a trove of hacked Democratic emails online.
Page has been on the FBI’s radar since at least 2013 because of his links to Russian interests. In its application for a FISA warrant targeting him, the FBI described Page as “an agent of a foreign power” and said it “believes Page has been the subject of targeted recruitment by the Russian government.”
Obtaining a FISA warrant is one of the most secretive and closely guarded processes under US law.
Page’s warrant contained four applications for 90-day periods of surveillance, starting in October 2016.
Multiple levels of the FBI, the DOJ, and FISA court judges approved each application to surveil Page. Then-FBI Director James Comey, then-deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, and a federal judge approved the first one.
After Trump fired Yates and Comey, Trump’s appointed deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, signed off on the fourth application in June 2017. The surveillance on Page presumably ended 90 days later.
The FISA judges, who were all Republican appointees, were made aware of the circumstances of the Steele dossier (which was quoted in some parts of the FISA application) and given further evidence to decide whether there was enough information to surveil Page.
Barr told lawmakers on Wednesday that he was “not suggesting that those rules were violated, but I think it’s important to look at them,” adding that he wanted to make sure there was no “unauthorised surveillance.”
Ellen Cranley contributed reporting.
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