James Comey on William Barr's "spying" claim: "I don't know what the heck he's talking about"

The former FBI director led the probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election until Donald Trump fired him

By Shira Tarlo

Published April 12, 2019 10:07AM (EDT)

James Comey (Getty/Carsten Koall)
James Comey (Getty/Carsten Koall)

Former FBI Director James Comey said Thursday that he had "no idea" what Attorney General William Barr meant when he testified he believed law enforcement officials spied on President Donald Trump's 2016 campaign – comments which he found to be "concerning."

"I have no idea what he's talking about, so it's hard for me to comment," Comey said in response to a question at the Hewlett Foundation's conference. "Maybe the only thing I can say generally is — I think that his career has earned him the presumption that he will be one of the rare Cabinet members who will stand up for things like truth and facts, and institutional values."

"So I still think he's entitled to that presumption," the former FBI director added. "Language like this makes it harder, but I still think he's entitled to that presumption. And because I don't know what the heck he's talking about, that's all I can say."

At a Senate subcommittee hearing Wednesday, Barr, defending his decision to order a review of the origins of the federal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, said he believes government "spying" on Trump's presidential campaign "did occur" and raised questions about unauthorized surveillance and whether the FBI followed its own rules.

"For the same reason we're worried about foreign influence in elections, we want to make sure that — I think spying on a political campaign is a big deal," Barr said when asked why he plans to probe the origins of what would become special counsel Robert Mueller's nearly two-year investigation into foreign election interference and possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

He later added, "I have no specific evidence that I would cite right now. I do have some questions about it. I have concerns about various aspects of it."

Barr added he was not launching an investigation of the FBI or suggesting there was a problem at the agency that is "endemic."

"I think there was probably a failure among a group of leaders there at the upper echelon," he said. "I feel I have an obligation to make sure that government power is not abused." He did not elaborate further or detail any wrongdoing by the FBI or Mueller throughout the investigation.

Until Trump fired him shortly after allegedly demanding "loyalty" from him, Comey lead the Russian investigation. Mueller, a former FBI director, was appointed special counsel May 17, 2017 — just eight days after Comey's ouster.

Trump on Thursday agreed with Barr's assessment.

"I think what he said was absolutely true — there was absolutely spying into my campaign," Trump said when asked if he was pleased with Barr's statement at the congressional hearing the day before. "I'll go a step further. In my opinion, it was illegal spying, unprecedented spying and something that should never be allowed to happen in our country again."

Mueller announced the completion of his investigation late last month. Barr then submitted a four-page summary of Mueller's report to Congress, in which he indicated the special counsel had not found evidence of criminal collusion or conspiracy between Trump's presidential campaign and Russia during the 2016 election cycle.

Trump on Wednesday slammed the probe as an "attempted coup" against his presidency.

"It was an illegal investigation. It was started illegally. Everything about it was crooked," he said, echoing his past criticisms of the investigation.

Shira Tarlo

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