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Attorney General Barr Says He's Looking Into The Origins Of The Russia Investigation


Attorney General William Barr was back on Capitol Hill for a second consecutive day today, this time before the Senate. Barr provided a couple new details related to special counsel Robert Mueller's final report. But the attorney general also said something else that we're going to dig into now. He said that the U.S. government spied on the Trump campaign.

NPR justice reporter Ryan Lucas was listening in, and he joins us now. Hey, Ryan.


CHANG: So President Trump has accused the Obama administration before of spying on his campaign. Then this comes up at the Barr hearing today. What exactly did the attorney general say?

LUCAS: So Barr was asked by Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen whether he actually thinks that the U.S. government spied on the Trump campaign. And this is what Barr had to say.


WILLIAM BARR: I think there was - spying did occur. Yes, I think spying did occur.

JEANNE SHAHEEN: Well, let me...

BARR: The question is whether it was predicated - adequately predicated. And I'm not suggesting it wasn't adequately predicated.

CHANG: Adequately predicated.

LUCAS: Right. To translate that out of kind of lawyer speak, what Barr is saying is that he wants to figure out whether that, quote, unquote, "spying" was done legally. Now, he said it would be a big deal if the government had, indeed, illegally spied on a political campaign. He says that he's putting a team together of people at the Justice Department to look into this. He says it's not a formal investigation.

Now, these allegations are actually something that the department's inspector general is already looking at. And Barr said yesterday, actually, that that investigation is expected to wrap up in May or June.

CHANG: Another probe, OK. So this is an idea that the president's allies in Congress have been long pushing for, you know, for months. So do you feel like it carries more weight now when it comes from the attorney general?

LUCAS: Well, it's a big deal for the attorney general to say this. He's a very good, very experienced lawyer - Bill Barr is. He's usually pretty circumspect with his language. And his decision to call this spying, which, of course, echoes the president's own language, raised a lot of eyebrows. Here's Democrat Brian Schatz.


BRIAN SCHATZ: I think the word spying could cause everybody in the cable news ecosystem to freak out.

LUCAS: Senator Schatz said that it's different when the attorney general uses the word spying in this context. He says it's provocative. It's inflammatory. And he gave a chance, actually, of Barr to reconsider his word choice. Here's how that exchange went.


BARR: I'm not sure of all the connotations of that word that you're referring to. But, you know, unauthorized surveillance. I want to make sure there was no unauthorized surveillance.

SCHATZ: OK. Thank you.

BARR: Is that more appropriate in your mind?

CHANG: Sounds a little testy there.

So I mean, we do know that there was some surveillance targeting people involved in the Trump campaign. Did Barr get into what his specific concerns are?

LUCAS: That's right. We know, for example, that - a court-approved surveillance against Trump campaign aide Carter Page. This was because the FBI had concerns that Page might have been working with the Russian government. We know this because the government's top-secret application to the court to get the authority to conduct that surveillance was actually made public.

Barr said he doesn't have any specific evidence that the FBI or other U.S. intelligence agencies did anything wrong, but he does have concerns about how all of this went down. He said, normally, law enforcement would tell a campaign if they thought that it was targeted by foreign intelligence. We know that the Trump campaign did receive a counterintelligence briefing in the summer of 2016. We just don't know what they were told.

Bottom line here, though - Barr has concerns. He wants to look into it.

CHANG: All right. That's NPR's Ryan Lucas. Thanks, Ryan.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.