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President Donald Trump said Thursday that he believes top U.S. government law enforcement officials spied on his 2016 campaign, echoing the claim first offered without evidence by his new attorney general, William Barr.
"There absolutely was spying into my campaign," Trump said at the White House.
His assessment came a day after Barr told a Senate committee that he believes "spying did occur" during the campaign, although it was not clear exactly what he was referring to. The U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court on several occasions authorized surveillance of Trump foreign affairs aide Carter Page.
Trump said, "Hard to believe it could have happened. But it did. There was spying in my campaign, and [Barr's] answer was a very accurate one."
Trump said he would call it "illegal spying." On Wednesday, he said investigators who started an initial probe into his 2016 campaign were attempting a "coup" and committing "treason" to keep him from winning.
His claims are among those advanced by conservatives and pundits on Fox News, his favorite cable news network. But opposition Democrats are deriding the contention that Trump was spied on.
Senate Democratic leader Charles Schumer of New York said Barr had "destroyed the scintilla of credibility he had left" with his suggestion law enforcement officials spied on Trump's campaign. Schumer said Barr was intentionally using claims made by conspiracy theorists and "the president's allies on Fox News."
Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, leader of the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, said Barr was "going off the rails" with the spying suggestion.
Barr, appointed by Trump as the country's top law enforcement official, said he wants to find out whether the investigation of Trump's campaign in the early stages was "adequately predicated."
"I want to make sure government power was not abused," Barr told lawmakers.
Later, he said the origins of the Federal Bureau of Investigation probe into Trump campaign contacts with Russia may have been mishandled, but that he was not sure whether there had been improper surveillance.
New questions about the events of 2016 are arising as Barr says that within days he will release a redacted version of the nearly 400-page report compiled by special counsel Robert Mueller after his 22-month investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and whether Trump, as president, obstructed justice by trying to thwart the probe.
Last month, Barr released a four-page summary of the Mueller report. It said the special counsel had concluded that there was no evidence Trump or his campaign had colluded with the Russians during the 2016 U.S. election, but that no decision had been made one way or the other about whether Trump had obstructed justice.
With Mueller not reaching a conclusion on the obstruction issue, Barr said he and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein decided that no obstruction charges were warranted against Trump.
Trump has claimed that the report was "total exoneration."