In an exclusive interview, Attorney General William Barr spoke to NBC News' Pete Williams about the findings on the Justice Department Inspector General's report on the Russia investigation and his criticisms of the FBI.
WILLIAMS, JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT, NBC NEWS: Mr. Attorney General, why do you say that the FBI opened the investigation of the Trump campaign on the thinnest of suspicions?
WILLIAM BARR, ATTORNEY GENERAL: Well, I'm glad to get into the issue of predication, but let me just start out by saying that I think you have to put this in context. I think the heart of the IG's report really focused on how the investigation was conducted once it got going.
And that is especially the very serious abuses of FISA that occurred, much of which has been, in my view, not accurately reported by the press over the last day.
But in one area I do disagree with the IG, and that was whether there was sufficient predication to open a full-blown counterintelligence investigation, specifically using the techniques that they did, to collect intelligence about the Trump campaign.
WILLIAMS: Well -- well, as a policy matter, why -- why not open an investigation on a thin pretext? I guess, on the one hand, you could say it's a presidential campaign, it's very sensitive, you need better evidence. On the other hand, you could say, it's a presidential campaign, we have to be very careful, there could be a threat to our political process.
BARR: Well, I think -- I think probably, from a civil liberties standpoint, the greatest danger to our free system is that the incumbent government use the apparatus of the state, principally the law enforcement agencies and the intelligence agencies, both to spy on political opponents, but also to use them in a way that could affect the outcome of the election.
As far as I'm aware, this is the first time in history that this has been done to a presidential campaign, the use of these counterintelligence techniques against a presidential campaign.
And we have to remember, in today's world, presidential campaigns are frequently in contact with foreign persons. And, indeed, in most campaigns, there are signs of illegal foreign money coming in. And we don't automatically assume that the campaigns are nefarious and traitors and acting in league with foreign powers. There has to be some basis before we use these very potent powers in our core First Amendment activity.
And here, I felt this was very flimsy. Basically, I think the department has a rule of reason, which is, at the end of the day, is what you're relying on sufficiently powerful to justify the techniques you're using? And the question there is, how strong is the evidence? How sensitive is the activity you're looking at? And what are the alternatives? And I think when you step back here and say, what was this all based on? It's not sufficient.
Remember, there was and never has been any evidence of collusion. And yet this campaign and the president's administration has been dominated by this investigation into what turns out to be completely baseless.
WILLIAMS: Well, of course, it doesn't turn out that way at the beginning. That -- at the start.
BARR: So let's -- let's look at the -- if, you know --
BARR: Let's look at what the basis of it was.
So, in May 2016, apparently a 28-year-old campaign volunteer says in a social setting --
WILLIAMS: This is George Papadopoulos?
BARR: This is George Papadopoulos. And this was described by the foreign official who heard him as -- who couldn't remember exactly what was said, but it was characterized as a suggestion of a suggestion. He suggested that there had been a suggestion from the Russians that they had some adverse information to Hillary, which they might dump in the campaign.
But what was going on in May? You may recall that we were in the thick of the investigation of Hillary Clinton's secret server. And the media was full of stories. And the blogosphere was full of stories. And political circles in Washington were full of stories and speculation that the Russians had, in 2014, two years before, hacked into her secret server and were, therefore, in a position to drop this stuff during the election.
In fact, the day before this comment was made in a -- in a -- in a bar, Fox News was reporting that their sources told them there was a debate going on in the Russian government as to whether or not to drop this -- Hillary Clinton’s e-mails between the intelligence agency and the foreign ministry.
But that related to Hillary's server. So the FBI -- what the FBI did is, later, after the D.C. -- the DNC hack and the dumping through Wiki -- Wikipedia in July --
BARR: WikiLeaks. Yes, WikiLeaks, in July, they get this information that this somewhat vague statement was made in a bar. And they jumped right into a full-scale investigation before they even went and talked to the foreign officials about exactly what was said. They opened an investigation of the campaign and they used very intrusive techniques. They didn't do, I think, what would normally be done under those circumstances, which is to go to the campaign.
The -- and there certainly were people in the campaign that could be trusted, including a member of the judiciary -- Senate Judiciary Committee and the governor of New Jersey, former U.S. attorney. There were people to talk to.
And what I find particularly inexplicable is that they talked to the Russians, but not to the presidential campaign. On August 4th, Brennan braced the head of Russian intelligence. He calls the head of Russian intelligence and says, we know what you're up to, you better stop it. He did it again later in August. And then President Obama talked to President Putin in -- in September and said, we know what you're up to, you better cut it out.
So they -- they go and confront the Russians who clearly are the bad guys and they won't go and talk and to the campaigns and say, you know, what is this about?
WILLIAMS: So, the inspector general says he found no evidence to indicate that the FBI's decision to start this investigation was based on a political bias. Do you agree?
BARR: Well, what he -- what he actually -- I think you have to understand what the IG's methodology is. And I think it's the appropriate methodology for an inspector general.
He starts with limited information. He can only talk to people who are essentially there as employees. And he's limited to the information generally in the FBI. But his approach is to say, if I get an explanation from the people I'm investigating, that is not unreasonable on its face, then I will accept it as long as there's not contradictory testimonial or documentary evidence.
In other words, it's a very differential standard. And all he said is, people gave me an explanation and I didn't find anything to contradict it. So, I don't have a basis for saying that there was improper motive. But he hasn't decided the issue of improper motive.
WILLIAMS: Have you?
WILLIAMS: Do -- do you --
BARR: I think we have to wait until the investigation -- the full investigation is done. And that's the fundamental description between what Durham is doing and what the IG is doing.
Durham is not limited to the FBI. He can talk to other agencies. He can compel people to testify.
One of the -- the problems in the IG's investigation, I think he would agree, is that Comey refused to sign back up for his security clearance and therefore couldn't be questioned about classified matters. So someone like -- someone like Durham can compel testimony, he can talk to a whole range of people, private parties, foreign governments and so forth. And I think that is the point at which a decision has to be made about motivations.
And I think we can -- right now it would be premature to make any judgment one way or the other.
WILLIAMS: I just wonder, though, about the -- what the FBI would say, I think here, is, OK, so they opened an investigation. Nobody was ever charged. They were concerned about possible Russian meddling in the -- in the election.
Why not open this investigation? What's the harm? You've said intrusive means. So what -- what is your concern about the fact that they did this?
BARR: Well, I think the big picture is this, from day one -- remember, they say, OK, we're not going to -- go to talk to the campaign. We're going to put people in there, wire them up and have these conversations with people involved in the campaign, because that way we'll get the truth.
From the very first day of this investigation, which was July 31, 2016, all the way to its end, September 2017, there was not one incriminatory bit of evidence to come in. It was all exculpatory. The people that they were taping denied any involvement with Russia. Denied the very specific facts that the FBI was -- was relying on.
So what happens? The FBI ignores it, presses ahead, withholds that information from the court, withholds critical exculpatory information from the court while it gets an electronic surveillance warrant.
It also withholds from the court clear cut evidence that the dossier that they ultimately relied on to get the FISA warrant was a complete sham. They -- they -- they hid information about the lack of reliability, even when they went the first time for the warrant. But -- but in January, after the election, the entire case collapsed when the principal source says, I never told -- I never told Steele this stuff. And -- and -- and -- and this was all speculation. And I have zero information to support this stuff.
At that point, when their entire case collapsed, what do they do? They kept on investigating the president and the -- well into his administration, after the case collapsed.
But here, to me, is the damning thing. They not only didn't tell the court that what they had been relying on was -- was completely, you know, rubbish, they actually started putting in things to bolster this Steele report by saying, well, we talked to the sources and they appeared to be truthful. But they don't inform the court that what they're truthful about is that the dossier is -- is false.
So that's hard to explain. And I -- the core statement, in my opinion, by the IG, is that these irregularities, these misstatements, these omissions were not satisfactorily explained. And I think that leaves open the possibility to infer bad faith. I think it's premature now to reach a judgment on that, but I think that further work has to be done, and that's what Durham is doing.
WILLIAMS: This, of course, is where the inspector general is most critical of the FBI. And when you say bad faith, are -- are you saying a bias? Because there can be all sorts of bias. There can be political bias, confirmation bias. What do you think happened?
BARR: Well, I think there are a number of scenarios, but I don't want to, you know, get into them. I think there could have been a lot of motivations involved. And different motivations. And there could be have motivations in the FBI and motivations outside the FBI by other players in this. This thing focuses on the FBI.
There was a lot going on around this that is not the subject matter of Horowitz's report, but I think has a direct bearing perhaps on what was going on in the FBI.
WILLIAMS: Based on what you know so far, is it still -- do you still stand by your statement that the campaign was spied upon?
BARR: Oh, it was clearly spied upon. I mean that's what electronic surveillance is. I think wiring people up to go in and talk to people and make recordings of their conversations is spying. I think going through people's e-mails, which they did as a result of the FISA warrant. They went through everything, you know, from -- from Page's life --
WILLIAMS: Because he wasn't in the campaign at that point where (INAUDIBLE) begun (ph) the surveillance?
BARR: No, but -- yes, but his e-mails were -- go back. I mean the main reason they were going for the FISA warrant initially was to go back historically and seize all his e-mails and texts and all that stuff from back -- months and even years. So they were coverage the period that he was in the campaign. And that's exactly the reason they went for the FISA, to get that stuff.
WILLIAMS: So what do you think -- what questions will John Durham address that the IG didn't?
BARR: Well, Durham is -- is looking at the whole waterfront. He is looking at the issue of how it got started. He's looking at whether or not the narrative of -- of Trump being involved in the Russian interference actually preceded July. And was it, in fact, the precipitating trigger for the investigation.
He's also looking at the conduct of the investigation. There are some things that were done in the investigation that are not included in Horowitz's report. And he's looking at those things.
But also a few weeks ago I told him that he should spend just as much attention on the post-election period. And I did that because of some of the stuff that Horowitz has uncovered, which to me is inexplicable. It's inexplicable.
WILLIAMS: Such as?
BARR: Well, what I said is, their case collapsed after the election and they never told the court and they kept on getting renewals on these applications. They -- there was documents falsified in order to get these renewals. There was all kinds of withholding of information from the court.
And the question really is, what was the agenda after the election that kept them pressing ahead after their case collapsed? He's the president of the United States.
WILLIAMS: You, of course, went to three countries with him. Why did you have to do that? And some people have said, well, this is clearly Bill Barr's in charge of the investigation.
BARR: Well, the presentation of that in the media has been silly. The person running the investigation is John Durham. But this is a very unusual circumstance where we are going to foreign government and asking them to assist and cooperate, including, you know, some of their sensitive materials and -- and personnel.
And a U.S. attorney doesn't show up on the doorstep in -- in some of these countries like London and say, hey, I want to talk to your intelligence people and so forth. All the regularities were followed.
I went through the -- my purpose was to introduce Durham to the appropriate people and set up a channel that he could work with these countries. At the request of the -- I went through the ambassadors of each country and the government's wanted to initially talk to me to find out, what is this about? What are the ground rules? Is this going to be a criminal case? Are you going to, you know, do a public report? They wanted to understand the ground rules before they met with Durham. And I met with them. And then I set up appropriate channels. This was perfectly appropriate.
WILLIAMS: Speaking of whether something is appropriate or not, was it appropriate for John Durham to issue his statement yesterday given that he's the U.S. attorney with the grand jury and his investigation isn't done yet?
BARR: Oh, yes, I think it was definitely appropriate because I think it was -- it was necessary to avoid public confusion. I think it was sort of being reported by the press that the issue of predication was sort of done and over, even though it was a very limited look at that issue by the IG, given the narrowness of his -- you know, of the evidence available to him.
And I think it was important for people to understand that the -- that, you know, Durham's work was not being preempted. And that Durham was doing something different. And he explains what he's doing different and that there are areas of disagreement. I think it was perfect appropriate so the public understood the relationship between the two exercises.
WILLIAMS: So you've outlined a number -- and you have sort of -- so has the inspector general, of problems with the way the FBI handled the investigation.
Are you confident that Chris Wray can fix them? And I ask that in light of the president's tweet today where he says, I don't know what report current Director Wray was reading, but it sure wasn't the one given to me. With that kind of attitude, he'll never be able to fix the FBI.
BARR: Well, you know, practically speaking, I think Chris has been working hard to address the problems of the past. We've worked well together. The people who were involved in the past are no longer there. He's brought in a new team that I think is a good team. I have confidence in that team. And I think he has set forth a number of specific proposals as to how to address those problems.
And I think what the president was getting at, and I feel the same way, is that we can't ignore the abuses of the past and -- and -- and -- and appear to be justifying them or minimizing them. We have to focus on getting it right going forward.
WILLIAMS: So you have confidence in Chris Wray?
WILLIAMS: Before I go into a couple of other questions, let me just sort of button this up.
I think a lot of people will hear what you're saying here and think, well, that's just Bill Barr defending Trump. Your concern about the FBI's investigation is, what, civil libertarian?
BARR: I think our nation was turned on its head for three years. I think, based on a completely bogus narrative that was largely fanned and hyped by an irresponsible press. And I think that there were gross abuses of FISA. And inexplicable behavior that is intolerable in the FBI.
And the attorney general's primary responsibility is to protect against the abuse of the law enforcement and intelligence apparatus and make sure that it doesn't play an improper role in our -- in our political life. That's my responsibility. And I'm going to carry it out.
WILLIAMS: A couple of other questions.
Were you ever asked by the White House to talk to anybody in Ukraine about an investigation of Joe Biden?
WILLIAMS: Are you concerned that Ukraine has a missing server from the Hillary Clinton e-mails?
BARR: Fortunately, I haven't gotten into the Ukraine thing yet. I -- I don't know. I'm not even sure about the nature of these allegations.
WILLIAMS: What about the allegation that it was the Ukrainians who meddled in the election, not the Russians? Are you satisfied that's not the case?
BARR: I am confident the Russians attempted to interfere in the election. I don't know about the Ukrainians. I haven't even looked into it, frankly.
WILLIAMS: What was your involvement in the department's decision not to investigate the president's phone call to Ukraine?
BARR: Well, we put out a statement that explained the process, which was the criminal division made that decision and -- and in the process consulted with the senior most career employees who were the experts on campaign finance laws. And that process was supervised by the deputy. But I'm not going to go beyond what we've already said about that process.
WILLIAMS: Well, were you satisfied that everything that was done that should have been done?
BARR: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.