FBI Director Christopher A. Wray said Tuesday that he would not call the investigation of Trump campaign advisers in 2016 “spying’’ — distancing himself from language used by President Trump and Attorney General William P. Barr.
“That’s not the term I would use,” Wray said in response to a question from Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) during a congressional hearing about the FBI’s budget.
Wray, who took over the bureau in 2017, urged lawmakers to wait for the findings from Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz, who is expected to issue a report in a month or two about the origins of the FBI investigation into the Trump campaign, and the law enforcement tools that were used, including foreign intelligence surveillance court orders.
The FBI director’s comments are in contrast to those made by Barr at a Senate hearing on April 10, when he said “spying did occur, yes,” calling it “a big deal.”
At that hearing, Barr said he wanted to explore whether any Justice Department rules were violated in the course of the investigation of people associated with the Trump campaign. “Frankly, to the extent that there were any issues at the FBI, I do not view it as a problem that’s endemic to the FBI. I think there was probably a failure among a group of leaders there in the upper echelon,” Barr said.
The attorney general’s comments echoed Trump and his supporters’ attacks on the FBI. Republicans have accused former FBI leaders of using flimsy or false claims to get court surveillance orders on former Trump adviser Carter Page in 2016 and 2017. They have also accused senior FBI officials of political bias against Trump. Current and former FBI officials have defended the agency’s actions, saying they were obligated to investigate allegations of wrongdoing.
After Barr’s “spying” comments generated intense reactions on both sides of the political aisle, the attorney general said he did not mean the term in a critical way, noting that he had once worked as a lawyer at the CIA.
Shaheen said she was “very concerned” about Barr’s use of the term. Spying, she said, “is a very loaded word. It conjures a criminal connotation.”
In his testimony Tuesday, Wray tried to make clear that although he did not use the term “spying” with regard to the Trump investigation, he was not picking a fight with those who do.
“There are lots of people who have different colloquial phrases,” Wray said. “To me, the key question is making sure it’s done by the book, consistent with our lawful authorities.”
Asked whether he believed FBI agents spied on the Trump 2016 campaign, Wray replied: “I want to be careful in how I answer that question here, because there is an ongoing inspector general investigation. I have my own thoughts based on the limited information I have seen so far.”
Shaheen pressed him further, asking whether he had any evidence that illegal surveillance was conducted on individuals associated with the campaign.
“I don’t think I personally have any evidence of that sort,” Wray said.
Barr has said he is concerned about possible violations of government rules regarding investigations of political activity and will conduct his own review of the issue, in addition to the work being done by the inspector general.
Wray said he is working with the attorney general in that effort.
“He’s trying to get a better understanding of the circumstances at the FBI and the department,” Wray said. “He and I have been in fairly close contact about it.”