Discussing Attorney General William Barr’s testimony on Capitol Hill Wednesday, the panel on The Situation Room repeatedly used the terms “dog whistle” and “bullhorn” when describing his assertion that there was spying on the Trump campaign leading up to the 2016 election. CNN chief legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin went so far as to accuse Barr of sending a “dog whistle” to Fox News host Sean Hannity.
The segment began with host Wolf Blitzer playing a clip of Barr making what he called an “unsubstantiated allegation,” namely that “spying did occur” on the Trump campaign while stressing that he was “not saying that improper surveillance occurred.” CNN chief political correspondent Dana Bash admitted that “he is saying what happened,” adding “there was surveillance of people associated with the Trump campaign.” Bash labeled the word “spying” as “very, very loaded” but admitted “it is technically accurate.”
Toobin took the conversation in a slightly different direction, complaining that “Bill Barr is a classic demonstration of what’s happened to the Republican Party. You know, he used to be an establishment figure, you know, George Herbert Walker Bush administration. And now, it’s a Fox News party.”
Toobin cited Barr’s confirmation as proof of his theory, mentioning how he talked about Uranium One and “all these fantasies about Hillary Clinton’s wrongdoing.” Toobin lamented the fact that “this is how he talks, because he’s part of that party now. And that party thinks the FBI, the CIA, everybody’s conspiring to get Donald Trump. And they now have their Attorney General.”
Toobin continued to trash Fox News by saying “the Attorney General of the United States in a dog whistle to Sean Hannity is a big deal.” Bash went a step further, initially describing “the terminology he used” as a “dog whistle” before declaring “actually, it was a bullhorn.” This is, literally, comparing Hannity to a dog.
Later, Toobin predicted that Barr’s proposed “investigation of the investigation” would not be “just a factual observation of what went on,” arguing that instead “he is doing the bidding of Donald Trump, who has been saying from the very beginning that this was a witch-hunt, this was improper…this was outrageous.” Toobin accusing Barr of “doing the bidding” of President Trump definitely raises the question of whether or not Toobin would have demonstrated the same outrage at some of the behavior of Eric Holder, President Obama’s first Attorney General who described himself as 44’s “wingman.”
The conversation concluded with Toobin describing the idea that “there was some Democratic conspiracy to get Trump” as “absurd” and noting that “no matter how many times the President says it, that doesn’t make it true.” It seems like Toobin and the rest of the panel agreed with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s assertion that Barr has “gone off the rails.”
A transcript of the relevant portion of Wednesday’s edition of The Situation Room is below. Click “expand” to read more.
The Situation Room
WOLF BLITZER: We’re following the breaking news, an unsubstantiated allegation by the Attorney General of the United States, William Barr, that has Democrats outraged tonight, with the House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, saying that Barr “is going off the rails.” Let’s dig deeper with our correspondents and our analysts. And Dana, the Attorney General made a truly extraordinary claim today about spying on the Trump campaign in 2016. Listen to this exchange that he had during his congressional testimony.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAM BARR: I think spying on a political campaign is a big deal.
SEN. JEANNE SHAHEEN: So you’re not…you’re not suggesting, though, that spying occurred?
BARR: I don’t…well, I guess you could…I think there was…spying did occur. Yes, I think spying did occur. I am not saying that improper surveillance occurred. I’m saying that I am concerned about it and looking into it. That’s all.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Because he seemed to backtrack a little bit on that subsequent…
DANA BASH: Right.
BLITZER: …answer. What is he suggesting?
BASH: Well, look, he is saying what happened. What happened is that there was surveillance of people associated with the Trump campaign, which is how the whole…the whole notion of the investigation began. What he’s also saying is the word spying, which is very, very loaded. It is technically accurate, which he said there when he was pressed on it by Senator Schatz of Hawaii. And he seemed to understand at that point, maybe he did before as well, that the term was incredibly loaded. But this is precisely the kind of rhetoric that the President and people around him have been saying from the rooftops to their base, that this is what’s wrong with…that this whole investigation was run amuck and it shouldn’t have happened from the, from the get-go. But the fact is, what he really did say was, yes, there was surveillance and I want to figure out if it was done properly.
JEFFREY TOOBIN: Bill Barr is a classic demonstration of what’s happened to the Republican Party. You know, he used to be an establishment figure, you know, George Herbert Walker Bush administration. And now it’s a Fox News party, where they…and you saw this in his confirmation hearing, talking about Uranium One, you know, all these fantasies about Hillary Clinton’s wrongdoing. This is how he talks, because he’s part of that party now. And that party thinks the FBI, the CIA, everybody’s conspiring to get Donald Trump. And they now have their Attorney General.
BASH: But it is true that there was technically spying on people.
TOOBIN: Carter Page was under investigation…
BASH: That’s the point.
TOOBIN: …in a counterintelligence...
BASH: So, what he said is not wrong. It’s just the terminology he used was a, was a, was a dog whistle.
TOOBIN: Was…okay, fair enough. But I think the fact that we have the Attorney General…
BASH: Actually, it was a bullhorn.
TOOBIN: …the Attorney General of the United States in a dog whistle to Sean Hannity is a big deal.
BLITZER: It’s one thing to say there was spying, another thing if a FISA court authorized some surveillance because of credible evidence or suspicions.
SABRINA SIDDIQUI: And the federal government would have had to present evidence or at least believe there was probable cause to obtain that FISA warrant against Carter Page. And I do think that, when Attorney General William Barr, as Dana noted, under questioning from Brian Schatz, said, well, I’m talking about unauthorized surveillance, he did sort of understand the weight of the term spying, which, frankly, is a word that the President and his allies have used. And that’s why the connotations were very problematic, certainly for Democrats on Capitol Hill, who said that they were flabbergasted, and they did not believe that Barr in his position would not have known what the subtext to many people of the word spying might in fact be, particularly since he said he did not have evidence to suggest that the surveillance of Carter Page was in fact illicit.
BLITZER: Let’s get Phil Mudd to weigh in on this. What do you think?
PHILIP MUDD: Can you give me a chance to defend the spies for a moment?
BLITZER: You used to work at the CIA.
MUDD: Yeah, that’s right. I wasn’t a spy. I was an investigator. Let’s be clear here.
MUDD: I think the language is what is significant. The difference between an investigation…if Barr had said, we…investigations were aggressive during the campaign, including a court- authorized wiretap of Carter Page, people would have said, well, we knew that a long time ago.He used that word spying. I think what he’s referring to, at least in part, is that Carter Page investigation that was under way. But by telling the American people, we were spying, they start to think, well, we had James Bond inserted in the campaign.
TOOBIN: But he’s saying…
MUDD: I think that’s the problem.
TOOBIN: …he’s saying more than that. He’s saying he’s going to do an investigation of the investigation.
BLITZER: Improper surveillance.
TOOBIN: Improper surveillance. So it’s not just a factual observation of what went on. He is doing the bidding of Donald Trump, who has been saying from the very beginning that this was a witch-hunt, this was improper, this was…this was outrageous. So it’s not just a factual observation. He is putting the Department of Justice to work…
TOOBIN: …to investigate the FBI and CIA.
BASH: And, just to be clear, he’s being encouraged to do that aggressively by Republicans in Congress, who have, who have been, you know, not necessarily very aggressive on the notion of oversight in general. But on this particular idea of oversight, they are, they are writing him letters, they are calling him, they are saying, you have to figure whether or not the genesis of this spying, counter-surveillance, whatever you want to call it, was done properly and was warranted.
SIDDIQUI: And there are just a couple of issues that are important to point out about Carter Page. One is that this FISA warrant was obtained after he had already left the Trump campaign. And as mentioned, there would have been probable cause they would have to present that he was acting as an agent of a foreign government and they were relying on information provided to them by a confidential informant. And the other point that some people are making about the investigation is that this is, of course, a focus on the FISA warrant, which is where Republicans have fixated their attention. But it sort of overlooks that the broader investigation about Russian interference in the campaign was, in fact, triggered by the fact that George Papadopoulos bragged to the then Australian Ambassador to the U.S. that the Russians had dirt on Hillary Clinton.
BLITZER: Well, what’s awkward though, Phil, and you used to work not only at the CIA but also at the FBI, what’s awkward is that there already an Inspector General investigation underway looking into the origins of this entire, this entire Russia involvement in the U.S. presidential election. You would think that the Attorney General would simply have said, you know what, let’s see what this Inspector General, Michael Horowitz, let’s see what he has to conclude, it’s going to conclude in the next few months. At that point, we can, we can follow-up if necessary.
PHIL MUDD: You’re killing me, Wolf. You must have been doing this for a while. I was just going to say that, I mean, the fact we’re missing here is he’s talking about an investigation that was already under way, again, the difference in language. If he had just said, there’s a standard process, and this is a highly sensitive investigative procedure, looking at the e-mails for somebody who was involved in a political campaign. Any Attorney General, Democrat or Republican, might say, I want to look at that, and, by the way, even preceding me, the Department of Justice had already decided to look at that. That is about page A-17 in The Washington Post. He decides to say, I’m looking at spying. If he made that choice consciously, I want to say, why are you doing that? You’re encouraging the American people to say the FBI is spying and the American people are going to say, that’s wrong.
BASH: You just answered your own question, don’t you think, that that is part of why he is doing that, to Jeff’s point, that he is trying to play into the politics of the people who brought it to the dance.
MUDD: I think, I think, maybe, but I must be the only naive CIA person…
BLITZER: You know, but, Jeffrey, if, if there is going to be spying on American citizens on a presidential campaign, you’ve got to have some judges who will authorize that under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the FISA courts.
TOOBIN: And that’s what happened. And these are judges named by Chief Justice John Roberts, a Republican appointee, the judges themselves were Republican appointees, so the idea that this was some Democratic conspiracy to get the Trump campaign has been absurd from day one and no matter how many times the President says it, that doesn’t make it true.