US Attorney General William Barr sparred with Democrats on Wednesday over whether “spying” occurred on President Donald Trump‘s 2016 presidential campaign in the United States, and said that a redacted version of Special Counsel Robert Mueller‘s report on Russian interference in the election would be out next week.
During questioning by senators, Barr said “spying” on Trump’s campaign was carried out by US intelligence agencies, but he later rephrased his comments saying it was “unauthorised surveillance”.
Initially using language echoing Trump’s attempts to discredit Mueller’s probe, Barr pulled back under questioning by Democratic Senator Brian Schatz, who said the use of the term “spying” was “unnecessarily inflammatory”.
Barr, a Trump appointee, said, “I want to make sure there was no unauthorised surveillance”, modifying his language.
Barr was testifying for a second day at a congressional budget hearing that was dominated by questions about Special Counsel Mueller’s Trump-Russia investigation.
He said the Department of Justice (DOJ) would release a redacted version of the Mueller report next week.
“I’m landing the plane right now,” Barr said at a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing. “I’ve been willing to discuss my letters and the process going forward, but the report is going to be out next week and I’m just not going to get details of the process until the plane’s on the ground.”
Democrats called on Barr to immediately “disavow and retract” his comments, saying “there is no evidence of spying”.
“It’s an unfathomable and irresponsible remark,” Senator Richard Blumenthal told Al Jazeera.
“He is acting in effect as Trump’s lawyer,” he said. “He’s a political actor and doing the president’s bidding, effectively.”
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Representative Jerrold Nadler reacted on Twitter saying Barr’s “comments directly contradict what DOJ previously told us. I’ve asked DOJ to brief us immediately. In the meantime, the AG still owes us the full Mueller report.”
Chuck Schumer, the top Democrat in the Senate, also called on Barr to retract the comments, saying if not, he needs to produce specific evidence to back it up.
“AG Barr admitted he had no evidence to support his claim that spying on the Trump campaign ‘did occur’,” Schumer tweeted. “AG Barr must retract his statement immediately or produce specific evidence to back it up. Perpetuating conspiracy theories is beneath the office of the Attorney General.”
And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she believes Barr’s comments undermine his independence as the nation’s top law enforcement officer.
The California Democrat said in an interview with The Associated Press news agency she was “very concerned” about Barr’s handling of Mueller’s Trump-Russia investigation report and accused Barr of doing Trump’s political bidding.
“He is not the attorney general of Donald Trump. He is the attorney general of the United States,” Pelosi said. “I don’t trust Barr, I trust Mueller.”
Barr, appearing before a Senate panel, did not say what “spying” had taken place but seemed likely to be alluding to a surveillance warrant the FBI obtained on a Trump associate.
Barr told the committee that he would review all the intelligence activities directed at Trump’s 2016 campaign.
Barr noted much of this has been done already, both in Congress and by the Justice Department inspector general, but that he will pull it all together to see if there may be “remaining questions to be addressed”.
With additional reporting by William Roberts in Washington, DC.