WASHINGTON — When Attorney General William P. Barr described the early stages of the Russia investigation as “spying” on the Trump campaign, he prompted questions about whether he had used that word spontaneously — or whether he was deliberately fueling conspiracy theories.
That question flared anew on Friday after Mr. Barr went even further in casting doubt on the legitimacy of the investigation in two interviews that, by design or coincidence, provided fresh ammunition for President Trump and allies to attack law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
Mr. Barr told Fox News he had been asking whether “government officials abused their power and put their thumb on the scale” in opening the Russia inquiry. “A lot of the answers have been inadequate and some of the explanations I’ve gotten don’t hang together,” he added.
And he doubled down on the innuendo-laden formulation he used in congressional testimony last month, telling The Wall Street Journal, “Government power was used to spy on American citizens.”
The statements were the latest in a series of actions and comments by Mr. Barr expressing skepticism about how the F.B.I. began investigating during the 2016 presidential campaign whether any Trump associates conspired with Russia’s election interference. The attorney general has appointed a federal prosecutor to review aspects of the investigation, rather than await the results of an independent inspector general inquiry due in the coming weeks, and he has invoked the term “spying” on multiple occasions.
Mr. Barr’s use last month of that charged term to describe a lawful investigation aimed at understanding a foreign power’s efforts to manipulate an American election thrilled Mr. Trump’s supporters. But the spectacle of an attorney general saying it outraged current and former law enforcement officials. The F.B.I. director, Christopher A. Wray, later rejected the term.
But it was not clear then whether Mr. Barr had simply gaffed — perhaps not understanding the reverberations that word choice would cause in a political news media environment that has changed drastically since his first stint as attorney general a quarter-century ago — or if he had deliberately set out to cause that effect.
His emphatic return to such language suggests that now, at least, he must know what he is doing, said Carrie F. Cordero, a former Justice Department national security official and prosecutor.
“His framing ‘spying on Americans’ at this point is intentional, conspiratorial and damaging to the public’s understanding of what DOJ/FBI do,” she wrote on Twitter. “He’s pandering to the president’s worst accusations, and at the same time undercutting what actually could be a credible and useful review of counterintelligence authorities in advance of 2020.”
Mr. Barr backpedaled somewhat during the hearing, saying he just wanted to know whether surveillance done as part of the investigation had a proper basis and that he “was not suggesting” that rules were violated.
In the same way, after raising the possibility to Fox News in the interview that aired Friday that law enforcement and intelligence officials may have been trying to sabotage Mr. Trump for political reasons, Mr. Barr added that he was just asking questions.
“If we’re worried about foreign influence, for the very same reason we should be worried about whether government officials abuse their power and put their thumb on the scale,” he said. “And so I’m not saying that happened, but it’s something we have to look at.”
Mr. Barr may not have intended to be as inflammatory as those conclusions, said James A. Baker, a former F.B.I. general counsel who helped oversee the early stages of the Russia investigation, and who previously worked for Mr. Barr at Verizon.
“He is a very careful lawyer and he words things very precisely,” he said. “If you read those precise words, they are less alarming than people have assessed them to be. He is, however, saying things that can be easily misconstrued and apparently are being misconstrued, and any attorney general needs to be mindful of the fact that he or she need to maintain credibility with, and the trust of, all Americans.”
Mr. Barr joined the Trump administration with a reputation as an establishment Republican from the pre-Trump era. But he has since attracted heavy criticism — not only by liberals, but also by traditional conservatives who remain aghast at Mr. Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party.
Critics are upset by how he sought to shape public perception of the then-secret report of the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, to make it seem better for the president. Democrats have accused him of lying to Congress about the Mueller team’s complaints about his portrayal of the report. A new Fox News poll of registered voters found that 45 percent of respondents saw Mr. Barr as “covering up for the president,” while only 33 percent described him as “being transparent with the American people.”
Mr. Barr rejected the accusation that he had given misleading testimony, playing up to Fox News the fact that he eventually made most of the report public. He dismissed accusations that he has been acting like Mr. Trump’s lawyer, saying his critics “don’t know what they are talking about.”
Some current and former rank-and-file F.B.I. officials in recent days have said they are trying to ignore the circus surrounding Mr. Trump and now Mr. Barr, and just keep doing their jobs. But Fox News’s handling of the interview — and Mr. Trump’s reaction to it — demonstrated how the attorney general has provided ammunition for the president and his allies to go after the agency.
On Friday morning, the “Fox & Friends” program aired portions of Mr. Barr’s remarks. One of the hosts, Steve Doocy, then asked audience members whether they believed Mr. Barr would get to the bottom of the purported F.B.I. wrongdoing.
Among other things, Mr. Doocy falsely said that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 was written “so that the United States could surveil people in other countries and it’s very disturbing if they use the laws that are supposed to apply to people from other countries to spy on Americans illegally.” (In reality, it was written to govern national security wiretaps on domestic soil, including of Americans.)
A woman responded that she thought it was all “very concerning,” but said she had confidence that Mr. Barr would get to the bottom of it.
“My Campaign for President was conclusively spied on,” the president tweeted. “Nothing like this has ever happened in American Politics. A really bad situation. TREASON means long jail sentences, and this was TREASON!”
Mr. Barr was vague when asked to specify his concerns.
“I’ve been trying to get answers to the questions and I’ve found that a lot of the answers have been inadequate and some of the explanations I’ve gotten don’t hang together, in a sense I have more questions today than when I first started,” he said to Fox News.
He also did not specify what answers and explanations prompted his suspicions.
The Justice Department’s inspector general has been investigating the origins of Trump-Russia inquiry, including the use of political opposition research as part of a wiretap application targeting a former Trump campaign aide. But that is not complete and Mr. Barr said he seen no report.
In an essay posted online on Thursday, the former deputy attorney general Rod J. Rosenstein defended the investigation while pointing to the inspector general review as the place to look for credible information.
“If the inspector general finds significant new facts, I would reconsider my opinion,” Mr. Rosenstein wrote. “But I always need to base my opinions on credible evidence. That is what makes the Department of Justice special. We review allegations and investigate when warranted, but we do not accuse anyone of wrongdoing unless there is credible evidence to prove it.”
Mr. Barr also recently assigned the United States attorney for Connecticut, John H. Durham, to separately review intelligence collection activities involving the Trump campaign, but several former officials involved in the events of 2016 or their representatives said Mr. Durham had not yet reached out.
Mr. Durham’s inquiry is a “review,” not a criminal investigation. The limitation suggests that the legal standard to open a criminal investigation — that “specific facts or circumstances” exist suggesting a specific law has been violated — remains unmet.