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Former Washington Journalist
Contributor on The Bipartisan Press
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Attorney General William “Bill” Barr ignited a new firestorm in Washington, when he raised a long-debunked conspiracy theory–without evidence–that the Obama administration spied on the Trump campaign during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Barr dropped his political bombshell in an exchange with Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) during a Senate hearing on the Justice Department budget.
“I think spying on a political campaign is a big deal,” Barr told Shaheen. “I think spying did occur. Yes, I think spying did occur. But the question is whether it was predicated, adequately predicated.
“The generation I grew up in which is Vietnam War period, people were all concerned about spying on anti-war people and so forth by the government and there were a lot of rules put in place to make sure there’s an adequate basis before our law enforcement agencies get involved in political surveillance,” Barr continued. “I’m not suggesting that those rules were violated, but I think it’s important to look at that. And I’m not talking about the FBI necessarily, but intelligence agencies more broadly.”
Reaction to Barr’s suggestion of spying without evidence was fierce and immediate.
“What I know is that Barr threw out this bombshell, and at the same time refused to present any evidence of it. That is, in my view, reckless and clearly political, especially given the fact the president has been urging him to do this and now is celebrating the fact that he did,” said Sen Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).
“And it obviously took away a lot of attention from the fact that Mueller has continued to stall in making the — excuse me, the Attorney General has stalled in making the Mueller Report public,” Van Hollen added, referring to the report special counsel Robert Mueller prepared at the end of his Investigation into potential collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. “And has refused to explain the basis for his ‘exonerating’ the president when Mueller expressly did not do so.”
Others wondered why Barr would raise an issue which could tarnish what, up until now, has been a sterling one.
“It was a shame, I think, to see Bill Barr, one of our nation’s most respected lawyers, a two-time attorney general, turn in his tortoise shell glasses for a tinfoil hat,” said Ron Klain, who served as chief of staff to former vice presidents Al Gore and Joe Biden. “What he was talking about was really the craziest Trump conspiracy theories that are out there. That only the president’s most fringe allies dare to advance. Now, what we know is that this has been investigated five times previously by Republican-led committees and nothing came of it.”
Cynthia Alksne, a long-time federal prosecutor and now an MSNBC legal analyst noted that “obviously, Barr feels the need to curry favor with Trump and I don’t understand why a man of his standing and reputation would feel the need to kowtow to the president in such a way.”
The normally non-partisan and analytical MSNBC host Chuck Todd was so outraged by Barr’s statement, he delivered an on-air diatribe.
“Using the word spying plays right into the president’s language and argument that the Russia investigation to him is just a witch hunt. And every time they’ve brought up this allegation, there has been zero factual basis for it,” Todd said. “Every effort to perpetrate the spying conspiracy theory has been debunked. I’ll get to that in a moment. Barr even said later in the hearing that he has no specific evidence about wrongdoing at the Justice Department. But you don’t get to put the toothpaste back into the tube now, do you?
“And if Barr’s assertion today sounds familiar, maybe because President Trump was making the same accusation literally as the attorney general was testifying before Congress,” Todd added.