WASHINGTON — Attorney General William Barr defended his characterization of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, after the revelation that Mueller complained to him over how the findings were first presented to the public.
Appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Barr faced heated questioning from Democrats, who claim that he had attempted to spin Mueller’s report to downplay its description of the conduct of President Donald Trump.
Mueller wrote a letter to Barr on March 27 saying that Barr’s initial summary of the investigation, issued three days earlier, “did not fully capture the context, nature and substance of this office’s work and conclusions.”
“We communicated that concern to the Department on the morning of March 25,” Mueller wrote in his letter. “There is now public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation.”
A redacted version of the Mueller report was released on April 18, but Mueller did not render a decision on whether Trump obstructed justice. The report did not exonerate the president, either, and examined 10 “episodes” of alleged interference in the Russia investigation. Barr concluded in his March 24 summary that there was insufficient evidence to charge Trump with obstruction.
Barr told the Judiciary Committee that after he received Mueller’s letter, he called the special counsel. Barr said that Mueller told him he was not suggesting they “had misrepresented the report,” but his concerns “focused on his explanation of why he did not reach a conclusions on obstruction and he wanted more put out on that issue.”
Barr also insisted that his March 24 letter was not intended to be a summary of the Mueller report, but of its “bottom line results.” Mueller asked Barr twice to release summaries of his report that were prepared by his team, but Barr declined. Yet Barr said Mueller was asked whether he wanted to review that March 24 letter before its release, but he declined.
More than anything, the hearing showed a rift between Mueller and Barr, who are said to be longtime friends. At one point, Barr said that Mueller’s letter to him was “a bit snitty,” and “was probably written by one of his staff people.” House Democrats, meanwhile, are seeking to have Mueller testify publicly at some point soon.
Democrats claim that Barr misled the public in the way that he characterized the Mueller report, both in the March 24 letter and in a press conference he held on April 18, ninety minutes before the redacted version was released. Trump claimed that Mueller’s report was a “total and complete exoneration,” even though Mueller explicitly said that was not the case.
“Contrary to the declarations of the total and complete exoneration, the special counsel’s report contained substantial evidence of misconduct,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). She grilled Barr on how he reached the conclusion that Trump did not obstruct justice.
She cited one episode outlined in Mueller’s report from June, 2017. Then-White House Counsel Don McGahn said that Trump ordered him to tell Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to remove Mueller because of a conflict of interest. McGahn declined.
Barr told the Judiciary Committee, though, that he did not find that Trump’s effort to have Mueller removed was a crime and that there was not evidence of “corrupt intent.” Instead, Barr said, the president was “frustrated” and “felt the this investigation was unfair and propelled by political opponents.”
But Feinstein said that “you still have a situation where a president essentially tries to change the lawyers’ account in order to prevent further criticism of himself.” According to the report, McGahn was under pressure from Trump in January, 2018 to issue a statement saying that the president had not ordered him to fire Mueller. McGahn refused to do so.
“Well, that’s not a crime,” Barr said.
Two other Democrats on the committee, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), each of whom is running for president, pressed Barr on his handling of the report. He admitted that he and Rosenstein had not examined the underlying evidence gathered by Mueller in reaching their conclusion that there was insufficient evidence to charge Trump with obstruction.
Harris criticized him for being “biased” and “not being objective.”
“Well, you know I haven’t been the only decision maker here,” Barr said, noting that Rosenstein also came to the same conclusion on the obstruction question.
Klobuchar asked Barr if “the president’s actions detailed in the report consistent with his Oath of Office.”
Barr, though, called the evidence “conflicting.”
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) challenged Barr’s contention that Trump fully cooperated with the investigation, as he refused to sit for an interview with Mueller’s team and instead submitted written answers. Leahy also cited other instances outlined in Mueller’s report where Trump tried to get then Attorney General Jeff Sessions to un-recuse himself and restrict the investigation.
“I don’t see any conflict between that, and fully cooperating with the investigation,” Barr said.
The attorney general also said that he and others at the Department of Justice were reviewing how the FBI’s counter-intelligence investigation of Russian interference was handled and how surveillance warrants were obtained. At a previous hearing, Barr said that he believed that “spying did occur” on Trump’s campaign, but was looking into whether federal surveillance warrants were properly obtained.