Attorney General William Barr testified to Congress that he believes the 2016 presidential campaign of Donald Trump was spied on.
While there have been plenty of indicators that the Trump campaign was under surveillance, Barr’s comments appear to be the closest to an official acknowledgment yet.
During the April 10 hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Barr was asked about his intent to form a team to probe potential surveillance abuses against the Trump campaign.
“As I said in my confirmation hearing, I am going to be reviewing both the genesis and the conduct of intelligence activities directed at the Trump campaign during 2016. A lot of this has already been investigated, a substantial portion of it has been investigated and is being investigated by the Office of the Inspector General at the department,” he said.
“But one of the things I want to do is pull together all the information from the various investigations that have gone on, including on the [Capitol] Hill and in the [Justice] Department, and see if there are any remaining questions to be addressed.”
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) responded, “And can you share with us why you feel a need to do that?”
“I think spying on a political campaign is a big deal, it’s a big deal,” Barr said.
“The generation I grew up in, which is the Vietnam War period, people were all concerned about spying on anti-war people and so forth by the government and there were a lot of rules put in place to make sure that there’s an adequate basis before our law enforcement agencies get involved in political surveillance. I’m not suggesting that those rules were violated, but I think it’s important to look at that. And I’m not talking about the FBI necessarily, but intelligence agencies more broadly.”
Shaheen continued, “So you’re not suggesting, though, that spying occurred?”
“I think spying did occur. Yes, I think spying did occur,” Barr said, followed by a moment of silence in the room.
“The question is whether it was predicated, adequately predicated,” he continued. “And I’m not suggesting it wasn’t adequately predicated, but I need to explore that. I think it’s my obligation.”
Later in the hearing, Barr elaborated, saying, “I believe there is a basis for my concern, but I’m not going to discuss the basis.”
Trump has long accused the administration of his predecessor, President Barack Obama, of spying on his campaign. Various FBI and Justice Department officials involved have resisted that characterization, saying that the counterintelligence probe, officially launched by the FBI on July 31, 2016, was only aimed at four Americans who were connected to the campaign.
Barr’s characterization appears to confirm that the campaign was indeed spied upon.
The allegation that the surveillance was illegitimate, or at least politically motivated, is part of a broader set of allegations that have collectively come to be known as Spygate. Among indicators underlying the allegation is the fact that the FBI used the now-infamous Steele dossier—a collection of unsubstantiated opposition research claiming Trump colluded with Russia to win the 2016 presidential election—to obtain a spying warrant on Trump campaign aide Carter Page. The dossier was paid for by the Democratic National Committee and the campaign of Trump’s opponent in the election, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Moreover, Trump campaign aides including Page and George Papadopoulos were targeted by a series of meetings involving intelligence assets, such as de facto outed FBI informant Stefan Halper.
Barr said potential spying violations can “possibly” result in prosecutions, but “there can be abuses that may not rise to the level of a crime.”
He pushed against any characterizations of his efforts as targeting the FBI.
“This is not launching an investigation of the FBI,” he said. “To the extent there were any issues at the FBI, I do not view it as a problem that’s endemic to the FBI. I think there was probably a failure among a group of leaders there at the upper echelons.”