Senator Kamala Harris drew the biggest reaction from Attorney General William Barr at Wednesday’s Senate hearing, but Robert Mueller proved to be his biggest Achilles heel. After it was reported by The Washington Post Tuesday evening that Mueller had sent Barr a letter calling him out for his handling of the report, the Attorney General had no good words to say about him.
That’s the way Attorney General William Barr described a letter from special counsel Robert Mueller expressing concerns about his portrayal of the Russia probe.
Barr was testifying at the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday when Democrat Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut asked about the letter. Mueller wrote it March 27, but it was only disclosed publicly ahead of the hearing.
“The letter’s a bit snitty,” Barr said. He said he thinks it was probably written by someone on Mueller’s staff.
Barr said he called Mueller the next day and said: “What’s with the letter? Why don’t you just pick up the phone and call me if there was an issue?”
Blumenthal characterized the letter an “extraordinary act” of “rebuking the Attorney General of the United States” and “memorializing it in writing.”
Private tensions between Justice Department leaders and special counsel Robert Mueller’s team broke into public view in extraordinary fashion Wednesday as Attorney General William Barr pushed back at complaints over his handling of the Trump-Russia investigation report and aimed his own criticism at the special counsel.
Testifying for the first time since releasing Mueller’s report, Barr said he was surprised Mueller did not reach a conclusion on whether President Donald Trump had tried to obstruct justice, and that he felt compelled to step in with his own judgment that the president had committed no crime.
“I’m not really sure of his reasoning,” Barr said of Mueller’s obstruction analysis, which neither accused the president of a crime nor exonerated him. “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.”
The airing of disagreements over the handling of the report was notable given the highly secretive nature of the special counsel’s investigation and the public appearance for at least most of the probe that the Justice Department and Mueller’s team were unified in approach. But Barr sought to minimize the rift by suggesting the special counsel’s concerns were largely about process, not substance.
Barr’s appearance Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee gave him his most extensive opportunity to explain the department’s actions, including his press conference held before the Mueller report’s release. It was also a forum for him to repair a reputation bruised by allegations that he’s the Republican president’s protector and by the emergence of a private letter from Mueller that criticized his handling of the report.
Democrats seized on the daylight between the two men to attack Barr’s credibility and accuse him of unduly spinning Mueller’s report in the president’s favor. They also pressed him on whether he had misled Congress last month when he professed ignorance about complaints from the special counsel’s team. Barr suggested he had not lied because he was in touch with Mueller himself and not his team.
“Mr. Barr, I feel your answer was purposely misleading, and I believe others do too,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
While Democratic senators bluntly questioned Barr’s actions, Republicans, in addition to defending Trump, focused on the president’s 2016 Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton’s email and campaign practices and what they feel is a lack of investigation of them.
Barr has also been invited to appear Thursday before the Democratic-led House Judiciary panel, but the Justice Department said he would not testify if the committee insisted on having its lawyers question the attorney general.
Neither side broke much ground Wednesday on the specifics of Mueller’s investigation, though Barr did articulate a robust defense of Trump as he made clear his firm conviction that there was no prosecutable case against the president for obstruction of justice.
He was asked by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the committee’s top Democrat, about an episode recounted in Mueller’s report in which Trump pressed White House counsel Don McGahn to seek the removal of Mueller on conflict-of-interest grounds. Trump then asked McGahn to deny a press report that such a directive had been given.
Barr responded, “There’s something very different firing a special counsel outright, which suggests ending an investigation, and having a special counsel removed for conflict — which suggests you’re going to have another special counsel.”
Barr entered the hearing on the defensive following reports hours earlier that Mueller had complained to him in a letter and over the phone about the way his findings were being portrayed.
Two days after receiving Mueller’s report, Barr released a four-page letter that summarized the main findings.
Mueller’s letter, dated March 27, conveys his unhappiness that Barr released what the attorney general saw as the bottom-line conclusions of the special counsel’s investigation and not the introductions and executive summaries that Mueller’s team had prepared and believed conveyed more nuance and context than Barr’s own letter. Mueller said he had communicated the same concern two days earlier.
“There is now public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation,” Mueller wrote in his letter to Barr. “This threatens to undermine a central purpose for which the Department appointed the Special Counsel: to assure full public confidence in the outcome of the investigations.”
Barr appeared unmoved by the criticism. He said repeatedly that Mueller had assured him that the information in Barr’s letter of conclusions was not inaccurate but he simply wanted more information out. Barr said he didn’t believe a piecemeal release of information was beneficial, and besides, it wasn’t Mueller’s call to make.
Once Mueller submitted his report, his work was done and the document was “my baby,” Barr insisted defiantly.
“It was my decision how and when to make it public. Not Bob Mueller’s,” he said.
Barr also complained that Mueller did not, as requested, identify grand jury material in his report when he submitted it, slowing down the public release of the report as the Justice Department worked to black out sensitive information.
Barr noted that Mueller concluded his investigation without any interference and that neither the attorney general nor any other Justice Department official overruled the special counsel on any action he wanted to take. Barr also defended his decision to step in and clear the president of obstruction of justice after Mueller presented evidence on both sides but didn’t reach a conclusion.
William Barr’s 5 Biggest Defenses Of Donald Trump’s Obstruction
Trump didn’t have a “corrupt motive”; he was just frustrated by Mueller’s conflicts!
In Barr’s understanding, Trump only ordered his White House Counsel Don McGahn to fire Mueller because he was concerned about Mueller’s supposed conflicts of interests.
“If the President is being falsely accused — and the evidence now suggests that the accusations against him were false — and he knew they were false, and he felt that this investigation was unfair, propelled by his political opponents, and was hampering his ability to govern, that is not a corrupt motive for replacing an independent counsel,” Barr testified.
McGahn told Mueller that the conflicts Trump cited were “silly” and “not real.” They include the lifelong Republican ex-FBI director’s efforts to get reimbursed from Trump’s Virginia golf club after cancelling his membership over a decade ago. Other supposed conflicts: several members of Mueller’s large team had donated to Democratic politicians.
Trump has the “constitutional authority” to end probes he thinks are bogus
Barr expanded on this theory in a later round of questioning, when Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) asked about Trump’s possible motives for obstruction.
Barr admitted that Trump could have such motives even if there was no “underlying crime” i.e. that Mueller did not prove that Trump’s campaign expressly violated the law by conspiring with Russia. But then he said it was within Trump’s “constitutional authority” to handle the probe as he saw fit.
“In this situation with the President who has constitutional authority to supervise proceedings, if, in fact, a proceeding was not well-founded, if it was a groundless proceeding, or based on false allegations, the President does not have to sit there constitutionally and allow it to run its course,” Barr said.
“The President could terminate that proceeding and it would not be a corrupt intent because he was being falsely accused,” Barr continued. “And he would be worried about the impact on his administration. That is important because most of the obstruction claims that are being made here, or episodes, do involve the exercise of the President’s constitutional authority and we now know that he was being falsely accused.”
The McGahn incidents were just about spinning the press
Barr was questioned repeatedly about Trump’s orders that McGahn fire Mueller in June 2017, then lie about the incident some six months later — even creating a false White House record denying the whole thing ever happened.
Barr testified that Trump could have genuinely believed that the press, led by the New York Times, misreported this story and that he simply wanted McGahn to correct the record.
“There is evidence that the President actually thought and believed that the Times article was wrong,” Barr said. “That is evidence on the P resident’s side of the ledger that he actually thought it was wrong and was asking for its correction. It is also possible, the report says, that the President’s intent was directed at the publicity and the press. The government has to prove things beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Discouraging flipping isn’t obstruction
When Trump discouraged his associates from cooperating with the federal government, he was probably just trying to make sure they didn’t lie to get a better deal, Barr said.
Trump’s many tweets, public comments and private exhortations to Michael Cohen, Roger Stone, Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort and others to remain “strong” and not “flip” were “not obstruction,” Barr said.
“The evidence, I think what the President’s lawyers would say, is that the President’s statements about flipping are quite clear and express and uniformly the same which is, by flipping he meant succumbing to pressure on unrelated cases to lie and compose in order to get lenient treatment,” Barr testified. “That is not — it’s a discouraging flipping in that sense, it’s not obstruction.”
TPM’s Tierney Sneed reported that this rhetorical backflipping prompted laughter in the hearing room.
Barr still doesn’t get Mueller’s reasoning on obstruction
After pouring over the 488-page report, overseeing its redaction, and repeatedly offering his public assessment of it, Barr said Wednesday that he still doesn’t quite get what Mueller had to say about the Trump obstruction question.
Asked by Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) why Mueller didn’t reach a conclusion on this topic, Barr said he “really couldn’t recapitulate it.”
“The deputy was with me, the principle associate deputy,” Barr said, describing a March 5 meeting with Mueller to discuss the final report. “We didn’t really get a clear understanding of the reasoning. And the report, I’m not sure exactly what the full line of reasoning is and that’s one of the reasons I didn’t want to try to put words in Bob Mueller’s mouth.”
Mueller relays in the report that he adhered to Justice Department policy that a sitting president can’t be indicted, in part because they are unable to defend themselves in court. The special counsel expressly said that he would have exonerated Trump on this issue if he could, but could not. He laid out multiple reasons why Trump would want to obstruct this particular investigation, including the fear that Mueller would discover evidence of a crime.
As it happens, former Trump attorney Michael Cohen is headed to jail this week in part for a hush money scheme that the President orchestrated to pay off women who claimed during the 2016 campaign to have carried out affairs with Trump. That case was spun off from Mueller’s investigation.