Attorney General William Barr committed on May 1 to brief congressional lawmakers on the possibility that senior FBI officials used counterintelligence briefings with President Donald Trump’s transition team to gather intelligence on the incoming administration.
Barr made the commitment during his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the Justice Department’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) wrote a letter to Barr on April 25 requesting a briefing about Barr’s ongoing review of spying on Trump’s campaign. In that letter, Grassley cited text messages between former senior FBI officials Lisa Page and Peter Strzok that, according to him, appear to suggest that the bureau used counterintelligence briefings with Trump’s transition team “as intelligence gathering operations.”
At the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on May 1, Grassley asked Barr if he would commit to brief lawmakers on the matter and issue a written response.
“Yes, Senator,” Barr said.
Grassley’s letter cites text messages between Strzok and Page, in which they discuss using a “CI guy” at a November 2016 briefing with members of Trump’s transition to see “if thete [sic] are any news [sic] Qs, or different demeanor.” In the same message, Strzok suggests using someone identified as “Katie’s husband” to “see if there are people we can develop for potential relationships.”
“Were these efforts done to gain better communication between the respective parties, or were the briefings used as intelligence gathering operations?” Grassley wrote. “Further, did any such surveillance activities continue beyond the inauguration, and in the event they did, were those activities subject to proper predication?”
Barr’s comments at the May 1 hearing were the first since the Justice Department released the final report on special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Mueller concluded there isn’t enough evidence to establish that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia and the special counsel didn’t reach a decision on whether Trump obstructed justice. Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein ruled there was insufficient evidence to bring an obstruction charge.
Mueller took over the investigation of the Trump campaign from Strzok and Page. In addition to discussing what appears like an intelligence gathering operation, the pair also spoke about stopping Trump from becoming president, an “insurance policy” in case he won the election, and “impeachment” after Trump became the president-elect.
At the hearing on May 1, Barr also revealed that the FBI failed to warn then-candidate Trump about Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 election. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) asked Barr if he was aware of any defensive briefings given to the Trump campaign to warn about Russia’s attempts to interfere in the election. Cornyn referenced a statement by former Attorney General Loretta Lynch noting that such defensive briefings are routine in counterintelligence investigations. Barr said he wasn’t aware of the FBI ever providing Trump with a defensive briefing.
“That failure to provide a defensive briefing to the Trump campaign, that would be an extraordinary or notable failure. Would you agree?” Cornyn asked.
“I think, under these circumstances, one of the things I can’t fathom is why it didn’t happen. Why if you’re concerned about interference in the election and you have substantial people involved in the campaign … I don’t understand why the bureau would not have gone and given a defensive briefing,” Barr said.
The absence of the briefing is particularly troubling, considering that Strzok was the lead agent running the counterintelligence probe. In addition to talking about stopping Trump from becoming president, Strzok displayed a strong personal bias against Trump.
While Democrats have focused on the findings of the Mueller report, Republicans are intensifying their scrutiny of the origins of the FBI’s investigation into the Trump campaign. Declassified documents show that the so-called Steele dossier appears to have formed a significant part of the investigation. The dossier was funded by Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and the DNC, and was drafted by a former British intelligence officer.
At the May hearing, Barr would not rule out that the dossier itself may have been part of Russia’s disinformation campaign.
“Can we state with confidence that the Steele dossier was not part of a Russian disinformation campaign?” Cornyn asked.
“No, I can’t state that with confidence and that is one of the areas that I’m reviewing,” Barr answered. “I’m concerned about it and I don’t think it’s entirely speculative.”