Attorney General William Barr expressed no regrets Wednesday over his handling of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, defending his decision-making in the face of a new letter from Mueller that objected to Barr’s characterization of the special counsel investigation.
At a public Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Barr downplayed the significance of Mueller’s letter raising concerns about the attorney general’s four page-letter summarizing Mueller’s conclusions, saying Mueller told him he was worried about media coverage and did not think Barr’s letter was inaccurate.
Democrats scoffed at Barr’s explanations, repeatedly clashing with the attorney general over his handling of the Mueller investigation and his decision not to prosecute for obstruction of justice. They accused Barr of “purposely misleading” Congress and the public about Mueller’s concerns.
But Barr made no apologies for how he released the Mueller report, even as Mueller’s letter to Congress — which stated Barr’s four-page summary “did not fully capture the context, nature and substance of this office’s work and conclusions” — upended the hearing just hours before it began.
“I think this whole thing is sort of mind-bendingly bizarre,” Barr said of the controversy over Mueller’s letter.
Barr argued that he chose to release a full, redacted version of the Mueller report, which he was not required to do. And he said he had a responsibility to make a decision on whether to prosecute President Donald Trump for obstruction of justice after Mueller did not do so.
“Once we heard that the special counsel was not reaching a conclusion on obstruction, the Deputy (Attorney General Rod Rosenstein) and I discussed and agreed that the Department had to reach a decision. We had the responsibility to assess the evidence and set forth in the report and make a judgment,” Barr said. “We concluded that the evidence developed during the special counsel’s investigation was not sufficient to conclude the President committed an obstruction of justice offense.”
Barr’s comments did little to appease Democrats, however, who pressed him on his previous testimony that he did not know of concerns raised by Mueller’s team. One Senate Democrat accused Barr of “masterful hair-splitting.”
“Mr. Barr, I feel that your answer was purposely misleading, and I think others do, too,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the longest-serving Senate Democrat.
Partisan divide in questioning
The hearing underscored the deep divisions over the special counsel’s investigation into Russian election interference and obstruction of justice, and how the details that have been released about the probe have done little to sway hardened opinions on Capitol Hill.
While Democrats pressed Barr about how he handled the Mueller investigation, Republicans focused their questions over how the FBI’s Russia investigation began. There were numerous references to the anti-Trump text messages sent by FBI officials and the legality of a foreign surveillance warrant obtained on a Trump adviser.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham vowed in his opening statement to investigate all of those matters further. As for the Mueller investigation, Graham declared: “For me, it is over.”
Barr also expressed some of his own misgivings about the special counsel’s probe. He said he was surprised Mueller didn’t reach a conclusion on obstruction, and he questioned why the investigation even took place if he wasn’t going to do so.
“I think that if he felt that he shouldn’t go down the path of making a traditional prosecutive decision then he shouldn’t have investigated. That was the time to pull up,” Barr said.
The attorney general also downplayed one of the key episodes of obstruction of justice that Mueller’s team included in its report, when Trump ordered White House counsel Don McGahn to fire Mueller, and McGahn refused.
“Now there’s something very different between firing a special counsel outright, which suggests ending the investigation, and having a special counsel removed for conflict, which suggests that you are going to have another special counsel,” Barr said.
Democrats call on Barr to resign
Mueller’s letter to Barr added a new level of scrutiny for the attorney general, who was already facing sustained attacks from Democrats accusing Barr of mischaracterizing Mueller’s findings.
Numerous Democrats, including House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, called for Barr to resign after Mueller’s letter was revealed.
Barr is making his first appearance before Congress on Wednesday since the release of a redacted version of Mueller’s report last month. The attorney general’s relationship with Democrats has soured over the past two months, as Democrats accused him of misleading the public with his summary letter, questioned his decision to clear the President on obstruction of justice and issued a subpoena to try to force him to provide Congress with the full, unredacted report.
Wednesday’s hearing is the first of potentially two days of hearings where Barr will be pressed by Democrats on his handling of the Mueller investigation. In a sign of the deteriorating relationship between Capitol Hill Democrats and Barr, his second-day testimony before the House Judiciary Committee is now in doubt over a dispute between the panel and the Justice Department over the format of the hearing.
As Barr appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the House Judiciary Committee voted to allow Democratic and Republican staff a half-hour to question Barr — a stipulation that has the attorney general threatening not to show.
“The letter is obviously a request by the special counsel … asking the attorney general to release the introduction and the summaries of the report because the special counsel felt that the attorney general’s public statements were misleading,” House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler told reporters Wednesday. “The attorney general’s failure to do so was just another step in trying to mislead the public, to shield for the President and mislead the public into what the report was all about. He completely misrepresented it for another month.”
Barr says Mueller didn’t object to his letter
Barr described his conversations with Mueller both leading up to the conclusion of the investigation and after his four-page letter was released, in an effort to defend how the investigation ended and a redacted version of the report was released.
Barr said he was surprised when Mueller told him he wasn’t reaching a conclusion on obstruction of justice. Mueller also said, according to Barr, that he wasn’t declining to make a decision to prosecute solely because of a Justice Department legal opinion that a sitting President cannot be indicted.
Addressing the criticisms over Mueller’s letter, Barr said that Mueller told him in a followup phone conversation that he did not think Barr’s four-page letter was inaccurate. Rather, Barr said that Mueller said press reports on the letter were inaccurate, particularly when it came to Mueller’s decision not to reach a conclusion on obstruction of justice.
Mueller’s letter, however, only references Barr’s summary, not any media reports.
Democrats also zeroed in on Barr’s response to a question last month whether there were concerned about how Mueller’s findings were represented from members of Mueller’s team.
“You said, ‘No, I don’t know,’ after you received this letter. What am I missing?” asked Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois.
“I talked directly to Bob (Mueller), and Bob told me that he did not have objections to the accuracy,” Barr responded.
“Attorneys don’t put things in writing unless they are pretty serious about them,” Durbin shot back.
Barr: ‘It was my baby’
In his opening statement, Barr explained he didn’t think it was in the public interest to release piecemeal portions of the report, which is why he says he provided the four-page summary on March 24 and then worked to release a public version, even though Mueller wanted Barr to release the executive summaries his team had written.
“I didn’t feel that it was in the public interest to allow this to go on for several weeks without saying anything, and so I decided to simply state what the bottom line conclusions were, which is what the department normally does, make a binary determination: Is there a crime or isn’t there a crime?” Barr said.
“The body politic was in a high state of agitation, there was massive interest in learning what the bottom line results of Bob Mueller’s investigation was, particularly as to collusion,” Barr added.
Democrats say that Barr cherry-picked lines from Mueller’s report to make it sound as rosy as possible for Trump, when Mueller detailed numerous contacts between Trump’s team and Russians and instances where Trump sought to interfere in the investigation.
But Barr argued that the Justice Department regulations put him in charge of the report once Mueller’s investigation concluded, and he worked to put out as much of the report as he could.
“(Mueller’s) work concluded when he sent his work to the attorney general. At that point, it was my baby,” Barr said. “And I was making a decision as to whether or not to make it public, and I effectively overrode the regulations, used discretion, to lean as far forward as I could to make that public. And it was my decision how and when to make it public, not Bob Mueller’s.”