By Sarah N. Lynch and Doina Chiacu
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Attorney General William Barr said on Wednesday he would look into whether U.S. agencies illegally spied on President Donald Trump's 2016 campaign, bringing criticism from Democrats who accused him of promoting a conspiracy theory.
Barr, who was appointed by Trump, is already facing criticism by congressional Democrats for how he has handled the release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report into the Russia probe and his comments about surveillance brought more derision from Democratic senators.
His testimony echoed longstanding allegations by Trump and Republican allies that seeks to cast doubt on the early days of the federal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election in an apparent attempt to discredit Mueller, law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
Earlier on Wednesday, Trump dialled up his rhetoric on the launch of the federal investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, which he described as "an attempted coup" and treason.
Barr told Senators at a hearing on Wednesday that he felt the need to further probe how U.S. intelligence agencies conducted themselves in the Russia investigation because "spying on a political campaign is a big deal."
"So you're not suggesting, though, that spying occurred?" asked Senate Jeanne Shaheen, the ranking Democrat on the Senate appropriations subcommittee.
"I think spying did occur," said Barr, the top U.S. law enforcement officer. "But the question is whether it was adequately predicated and I am not suggesting that it wasn't adequately predicated."
But he acknowledged under sharp questioning by lawmakers and that there was no evidence of wrongdoing and later declined to elaborate on why he has concerns.
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said in a tweet that Barr should retract his comments. "Perpetuating conspiracy theories is beneath the office of the Attorney General," Schumer wrote.
"Let me just say, how very, very dismaying and disappointing that the chief law enforcement officer of our country is going off the rails, yesterday and today. He is attorney general of the United States of America, not the attorney general of Donald Trump,” House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in Congress, told a news conference in Virginia, referring to two days of testimony before Congress by Barr.
Trump on Wednesday launched an especially blistering assault on the actions of FBI officials who began the investigation into the 2016 election before Mueller was appointed in May 2017.
"It was started illegally," Trump told reporters at the White House, without citing any evidence. "Everything about it was crooked. Every single thing about it. There were dirty cops," he said. "What they did was treason."
BARR HAS MUELLER REPORT
An appearance in Congress on Tuesday by Barr won kudos from his boss. Trump said he was pleased Barr was interested in "going back to the origins of exactly where this all started."
"So hopefully that will happen," Trump said. "There is a hunger for that to happen in this country like I've never seen before."
The attorney general is overseeing the release to Congress of a report by Mueller about his 22-month probe into whether members of Trump's campaign colluded with Russia during the White House race and if he obstructed official inquiries into the matter.
A redacted version of Mueller's report is due to be released within a week. It is expected to shed light on some of the more contentious episodes of Trump's election bid and presidency, including his firing of FBI Director James Comey in 2017 and his campaign's contacts with Russians.
Democrats are pushing Barr to release the full 400-page report Mueller submitted to him on March 22, with many of them questioning whether he sugarcoated its findings in a letter to Congress.
In the March 24 letter, Barr said that Mueller's investigation did not establish that members of Trump's election campaign conspired with Russia. He also said that Mueller presented evidence "on both sides" about whether Trump obstructed justice, but he did not draw a conclusion one way or the other.
At the Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing, Democratic Senator Brian Schatz pressed Barr on his use of the term "spying," which he called "unnecessarily inflammatory."
Barr modified his language, saying, "I want to make sure there was no unauthorized surveillance."
He was also asked whether he had any evidence of wrongdoing in the course of the federal probe of whether the Trump campaign worked with Moscow to sway the election.
"I have no specific evidence that I would cite right now, I do have some questions about it," Barr replied.
Barr told the committee that he would review all the intelligence activities directed at Trump's 2016 campaign, and added that his review was not specifically directed just at the FBI alone.
Barr noted much of this has been done already, both in Congress and by the Justice Department inspector general, but that he will pull it all together to see if there may be "remaining questions to be addressed."
Inspector General Michael Horowitz is investigating whether the FBI and Justice Department followed proper procedures when they applied for a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant to conduct surveillance on former Trump adviser Carter Page and his ties to Russia. Barr said on Tuesday that investigation was due to wrap up in May or June.
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch and Doina Chiacu. Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell. Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Alistair Bell)