Hoo boy. William Barr did his best to cushion this bombshell in friendly terms, but telling Congress that law enforcement spied on the Donald Trump campaign sets off all sorts of issues at the Department of Justice and on Capitol Hill. Barr made this observation while answering questions about his handling of the Mueller report at a Senate Appropriations hearing. “I think spying did occur,” the Attorney General stated, and “I think spying on a political campaign is a big deal”:
— CBS News (@CBSNews) April 10, 2019
— CBS News (@CBSNews) April 10, 2019
The context here is important. By now it’s undeniable that spying took place — that’s the point of getting the FISA warrant in the first place. That the FBI surveilled Carter Page and his contacts with the Trump campaign is a fact. The question, as Barr explains, is whether the FBI ever had a sufficient predicate to spy on the Trump campaign via Page in the first place. A FISA warrant usually requires an overwhelming indication that a US person is acting as a foreign agent. Since Carter Page never got indicted for that crime — nor did his name even appear in any of Mueller’s indictments — it appears that the FBI was at the least wrong about that assumption.
CNN’s Manu Raju notes one person in particular who will be happy to hear Barr’s comments even with that context, as did CBS News:
Barr comments here bound to please Trump, who has railed on the handling of the Russia probe. “I think spying on a political campaign is a big deal,” Barr said. He said he’s “not suggesting those rules are violated” and wants to know what happened. “I think spying did occur.”
— Manu Raju (@mkraju) April 10, 2019
It’s day two of questions for Attorney General William Barr who is being pressed on the impending release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s final report on Russian interference in the 2016 election. Barr, who appeared before the House Appropriations subcommittee Tuesday, told lawmakers that he hopes to release Mueller’s findings, with redactions, “within a week.”
Barr testified Wednesday that he thinks “there was spying” on the Trump campaign, a line likely to please President Trump.
Trump didn’t need to hear that from Barr. He went on the warpath at the same time:
Trump falsely claimed that the Mueller investigation was started illegally. "What they did was treason, what they did was terrible, what they did was against our Constitution and everything we stand for," Trump said. pic.twitter.com/hH9RnxUOCM
— POLITICO (@politico) April 10, 2019
Point of order on Politico’s description: Trump didn’t call the start of the Mueller investigation illegal. He’s clearly referring to the start of the FBI’s counterintelligence probe and its FISA warrant on Carter Page that was predicated on the Christopher Steele dossier. That’s why Trump mentions Andrew McCabe, James Comey, “Lisa” [Page], and Peter Strzok among the “bad people” he excoriated, but not Robert Mueller. He’s making the case that Barr opened in his testimony today.
Barr has already said that he plans to investigate these circumstances, but don’t forget that he inherited an investigation in progress. Inspector General Michael Horowitz has been investigating the FISA warrants in the FBI’s Russia-collusion investigation for slightly over a year now, working with US Attorney John Huber for any prosecutorial decisions. Horowitz may have delayed or slowed that process in deference to Mueller and his investigation in order to avoid a conflict or appearance of obstruction, but he should be operating at full speed now. If the decisions that led to the Page surveillance warrant were made for partisan political reasons and/or the FBI knowingly misled the FISA court in getting the warrant, there should be criminal consequences for those involved.
Horowitz has enough independence and credibility to conduct this probe for his findings to be widely accepted at the end in either direction, so there’s no need for another special counsel. The need for transparency on this spying episode is as undeniable as the spying itself, and Horowitz will be the quickest path for that transparency.