Attorney General Bill Barr’s reputation and credibility were already in trouble when, four weeks ago, the Republican lawyer told a Senate committee “spying did occur” by the government on Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. Barr added, “I think spying on a political campaign – it’s a big deal, it’s a big deal.”
Despite the dubious and needlessly provocative nature of the attorney general’s comments – which he’s refused to retract – Republicans seized on Barr’s assessment, with the president’s re-election campaign even using his “spying” talk as the basis for political fundraising.
We learned today, however, that another high-ranking Trump appointee – FBI Director Chris Wray – doesn’t share Barr’s perspective.
During a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing, Wray was asked by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., about Barr’s statement last month that “spying did occur” on the Trump campaign.
“I was very concerned by his use of the word spying, which I think is a loaded word,” Shaheen said. “When FBI agents conduct investigations against alleged mobsters, suspected terrorists, other criminals, do you believe they’re engaging in spying when they’re following FBI investigative policies and procedures?”
“That’s not the term I would use,” Wray said of “spying.” “So, I would say that’s a no to that question.”
When the Democratic senator asked Christopher Wray specifically whether he’s seen “any evidence that any illegal surveillance” into Trump’s 2016 operation, the FBI director replied, “I don’t think I personally have any evidence of that sort.”
I think it’s safe to say the president’s re-election campaign won’t be using Wray’s testimony as the basis for any fundraising letters.
To be sure, the FBI chief was diplomatic in his phrasing. Wray was no doubt aware of the political debate and the coverage of Bill Barr’s earlier comments, and Wray made no effort to explicitly say the attorney general went too far.
But the FBI director also made it abundantly clear he wasn’t willing to endorse Barr’s assessment, either. Wray didn’t take a direct shot at the attorney general’s political antics, but he seemed to take an implicit one.
Last fall, NBC News reported that Trump has been known to privately complain about his FBI chief, believing that Wray is “not protecting his interests.” After today, it seems likely those complaints will grow louder.