US government ‘spied’ on Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign, attorney general says

Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign was spied on by the US government, the country’s attorney general said on Wednesday, as he vowed to investigate whether rules were broken in the process. 

William Barr, who took up the job in February, said he would look at how the FBI and US intelligence agencies set up the Trump-Russia probe before the 2016 presidential election. 

“Spying did occur”, Mr Barr said during a hearing on Capitol Hill, noting at another point that “spying on a political campaign is a big deal”. 

He appeared to draw parallels with government spying on the anti-Vietnam War movement in the 1960s, while insisting he did not know if any wronging had occurred. 

The comments follow intense pressure from Mr Trump to investigate the Russia probe’s origins after special counsel Robert Mueller’s report found no conspiracy between his campaign and the Kremlin. 

Donald Trump, the US president, has claimed 'complete exoneration' from special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigationCredit:
Al Drago/Bloomberg

It was unclear what “spying” Mr Barr was referring to, but Mr Trump’s allies have pointed to a string of actions taken by intelligence and justice officials before the 2016 election as they claim the “deep state” was unfairly targeting the Trump campaign. 

One was the wiretap on Carter Page, the former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser, that was applied for and approved before the 2016 election. Republicans have questioned how open US officials were with the court when seeking the wiretap. 

Another is the handling of a string of allegations made in a series of memos by Christopher Steele, the former British MI6 agent, about the Trump campaign’s links to Russia. The FBI got hold of his so-called ‘dossier’ before the election. 

A third involved Stefan Halper, the Cambridge University academic and former Republican adviser. US media has reported that he approached Trump campaign officials on behalf of the FBI to sound them out over Russia before the election – though that has not been confirmed by the US government. 

Carter Page, the former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser who was wiretapped before the 2016 US electionCredit:
AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin

During a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Mr Barr was asked if he thought spying occurred on the Trump campaign from the US government. 

“I think spying did occur. Yes, I think spying did occur,” Mr Barr said. 

He went on: “The question is whether it was adequately predicated. And I’m not suggesting it wasn’t adequately predicated but I would need to explore that.”

Mr Barr referenced rules that curb the government’s ability to spy on political campaigns, saying: “I’m not suggesting that those rules were violated but I think it’s important to look at that.”

He said that he would look into whether the FBI and US intelligence agencies acted appropriately. “I feel I have an obligation to make sure that government power is not abused," Mr Barr said. 

The comments reflect how quickly attention in Washington has flipped from Trump-Russia links to whether the Russia election meddling probe itself acted inappropriately. 

For months Trump acolytes have been framing Mr Mueller’s investigation as a witch hunt and the Russia probe as a “deep state” stitch-up from officials who opposed his presidency. 

Supporters of the probe insist that US officials were acting appropriately and in the public interest by investigating claims over the Trump campaign’s engagements with Russian-linked figures. 

Adam Schiff, the top Democrat congressman on the House Intelligence Committee, criticised Mr Barr for his use of the term “spying” to characterise how the FBI and justice officials had acted. 

“The casual suggestion by the nation’s top law enforcement officer of ‘spying’ may please Donald Trump, who rails against a ‘deep state coup,’ but it strikes another destructive blow to our democratic institutions,” Mr Schiff tweeted. 

“The hardworking men and women at the DOJ and FBI deserve better.”