Attorney General William Barr on Wednesday refused – for a second day – to say whether the White House has seen special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigative report, though he did open the door wider to the possibility that Congress would see more of it than he has previously acknowledged.
He also told a Senate hearing he didn't know whether Mueller supported his controvsial conclusion that President Donald Trump had not obstructed justice.
Democrats are insisting that Barr release the entire unredacted report to Congress. While Barr said Tuesday he would make a redacted version of the report public "within a week," on Wednesday said he would do so "hopefully, next week." He repeated that he was trying to be as "transparent as possible."
“The fact that information is classified doesn't mean that Congress can't see it,” Barr said and indicated that he might be open to negotiating with lawmakers regarding grand jury material, something Democrats have insisted on seeing.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., asked Barr if Mueller had asked him to leave the question of whether Trump had engaged in obstruction of justice to Congress.
Barr said Mueller didn’t “say that to me, no,” and when asked if Mueller had said the decision should be left to the attorney general, Barr said, “He didn’t say that either.”
But Barr said that’s “generally the way it works" at the Justice Department.
Under pointed questioning from Democrat Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, who asked if Barr agreed with the special counsel “that there were difficult issues of law and fact” as he considered whether Trump obstructed justice, the attorney general repeatedly refused to answer.
“The thing is, you put this out there. The president went out and tweeted the next day that he was exonerated,” blasted Van Hollen. “That wasn't based on anything in the Mueller report with respect to obstruction of justice. That was based on your assessment, on March 24th. Now you won't elaborate at all as to how you reached that conclusion?”
“It was a conclusion of a number of people, including me, obviously, as the attorney general,” Barr said, adding that he looks forward to explaining his position once the full report has been released.
“Did Bob Mueller support your conclusion?” Van Hollen then asked. “I don't know whether Bob Mueller supported my conclusion,” Barr shot back.
But Barr may have raised the eyebrows the most when he suggested that he thought “spying” on the Trump campaign may have occurred in the course of the government’s counterintelligence investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
When asked by New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen –- the panel’s top Democrat –- why he has said he feels the need to investigate the genesis of the Russian meddling probe -- particularly since the DOJ inspector general is nearly done with one on the same topic -- Barr said, “I think spying on a political campaign is a big deal. It's a big deal … I'm not suggesting that those rules were violated, but I think it's important to look at that.”
Shaheen appeared shocked, pausing before asking, “You’re not suggesting, though, that spying occurred?
Barr answered, “I think spying did occur, yes. I think spying did occur,” quickly adding that he wasn’t suggesting that such a probe wasn’t “adequately predicated.”
“I haven't set up a team yet, but I have in mind having some colleagues help me pull all this information together and let me know whether there are some areas that should be looked at,” Barr said, expanding on a promise he made at his confirmation hearing earlier this year. “I also want to make clear, this is not launching an investigation of the FBI. Frankly, 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 failure among a group of leaders there at the upper echelon."
It was an exchange sure to fuel Democrats’ suspicions that the attorney general is doing the bidding of Trump and congressional Republicans. Many Democrats have already accused Barr of being biased in Trump's favor when he said he had concluded in his March 24 letter to Congress that the president did not commit obstruction of justice. They also point to a June 2018 memo Barr wrote arguing that the president, by very nature of his position as head of the government, cannot obstruct justice.
Over the past two years, Trump has repeatedly accused the FBI, particularly under former Director James Comey, whom Trump fired, of mishandling the Russia probe.
Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, later asked Barr if he wanted to clarify his answer on “spying,” saying, “It's rather provocative, and in my view, unnecessarily inflammatory.”
Barr deadpanned: “Unauthorized surveillance. I want to make sure there's no unauthorized surveillance. Is that more appropriate in your mind?”
But by the end of the two-hour hearing, Barr seemed to feel the need to return to subject himself, saying unprompted, “I just want to make it clear ... I am not saying that improper surveillance occurred. I am saying that I am concerned about it and looking into it.”
There is just one known case of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) surveillance against a single person associated with the Trump campaign — adviser Carter Page -- who had previously been targeted for recruitment by Russians and who was alleged to be working for the Kremlin, although it's now believed that was not the case.
The Democrat who chairs the House Intelligence Committee said Barr’s decision to look into “spying” on the Trump campaign is “music to Donald Trump’s ears.”
“I’m sure this is exactly what the president wanted him to say,” Schiff told ABC Senior Congressional Correspondent Mary Bruce.
“It’s stunning to hear the top law enforcement officer in the country talk so cavalierly about spying on a political campaign. This must be very pleasing to Donald Trump who wants to create a narrative that he’s the victim of some deep state coup. But the attorney general has a higher responsibility than simply doing the bidding of the president of the United States.”
“I’m sure that was music to Donald Trump’s ears but I’m sure it was also a body blow to the hardworking men and women of the FBI,” he said.