By Sarah N. Lynch and Doina Chiacu
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Attorney General William Barr said on Wednesday he would look into whether U.S. agencies illegally spied on President Donald Trump's 2016 campaign, but acknowledged under sharp questioning by lawmakers that there was no evidence of wrongdoing.
Barr, who was appointed by Trump, is already facing criticism by congressional Democrats for how he has handled the release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report into the Russia probe and his comments about surveillance brought more derision from Democratic senators.
His reference during a congressional hearing to spying in the early days of the federal Russia investigation echoed longstanding allegations by Trump and fellow Republicans that cast doubt on the origins of the probe in an apparent attempt to discredit Mueller, law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
Earlier on Wednesday, Trump levied a harsh attack on the launch of the federal investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, which he described as "an attempted coup" and treason.
When asked at a Senate hearing why he felt the need to further probe how U.S. intelligence agencies conducted themselves in the Russia investigation, Barr said he thought "spying on a political campaign is a big deal."
"So you're not suggesting, though, that spying occurred?" asked Senate Jeanne Shaheen, the ranking Democrat on the Senate appropriations subcommittee.
"I think spying did occur," Barr said. "But the question is whether it was adequately predicated and I am not suggesting that it wasn't adequately predicated."
He later declined to elaborate on why he has concerns.
His testimony on Wednesday followed an especially blistering assault by Trump on the actions of FBI officials who began the investigation into the 2016 election that Mueller eventually took over.
"It was started illegally," Trump told reporters at the White House. "Everything about it was crooked. Every single thing about it. There were dirty cops," he said. "What they did was treason."
BARR HAS MUELLER REPORT
An appearance in Congress on Tuesday by Barr won kudos from his boss. Trump said he was pleased Barr was interested in "going back to the origins of exactly where this all started."
"So hopefully that will happen," Trump said. "There is a hunger for that to happen in this country like I've never seen before."
The attorney general is overseeing the release to Congress of a report by Mueller about his 22-month probe into whether members of Trump's campaign colluded with Russia during the White House race and if he obstructed official inquiries into the matter.
The report is expected to shed light on some of the more contentious episodes of Trump's election bid and presidency, including his firing of FBI Director James Comey in 2017 and his campaign's contacts with Russians.
Democrats are pushing Barr to release the full 400-page report Mueller submitted to him on March 22, with many of them questioning whether he sugarcoated its findings in a letter to Congress.
In the March 24 letter, Barr said that Mueller's investigation did not establish that members of Trump's election campaign conspired with Russia. He also said that Mueller presented evidence "on both sides" about whether Trump obstructed justice, but he did not draw a conclusion one way or the other.
At the Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing, Democratic Senator Brian Schatz pressed Barr on his use of the term "spying," which he called "unnecessarily inflammatory."
Barr modified his language, saying, "I want to make sure there was no unauthorized surveillance."
He was also asked whether he had any evidence of wrongdoing in the course of the federal probe of whether the Trump campaign worked with Moscow to sway the election.
"I have no specific evidence that I would cite right now, I do have some questions about it," Barr replied.
U.S. Representative Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said the Justice Department and FBI employees deserve better from their leader.
"The top law enforcement officer of the country should not casually suggest that those under his purview engaged in ‘spying’ on a political campaign," Schiff said in a statement.
Barr told the committee that he would review all the intelligence activities directed at Trump's 2016 campaign, and added that his review was not specifically directed just at the FBI alone.
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."
Inspector General Michael Horowitz is investigating whether the FBI and Justice Department followed proper procedures when they applied for a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant to conduct surveillance on former Trump adviser Carter Page and his ties to Russia. Barr said on Tuesday that investigation was due to wrap up in May or June.
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Alistair Bell)
This story has not been edited by Firstpost staff and is generated by auto-feed.
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Updated Date: Apr 11, 2019 02:07:32 IST