WASHINGTON — Attorney General William Barr on Wednesday defended his handling of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report amid a torrent of criticism from Democrats and calls for Barr’s resignation over a letter Mueller sent objecting to the attorney general’s characterization of the special counsel investigation.
Barr is expected to face a barrage of questions from Democrats at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing over Mueller’s letter, which was revealed Tuesday evening, as well as Barr’s decision there wasn’t sufficient evidence to prosecute an obstruction of justice case.
The Justice Department sent Mueller’s letter to Congress Wednesday morning, just minutes before Barr’s hearing on the investigation began, which stated Barr’s four-page summary “did not fully capture the context, nature and substance of this office’s work and conclusions.”
In his testimony Barr defended his characterization of Mueller’s probe and decision not to prosecute on obstruction of justice.
“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 said he was surprised when Mueller told him he wasn’t reaching a conclusion on obstruction. 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 Mueller’s letter, Barr said that in a follow-up phone conversation, Mueller said he did not think Barr’s four-page letter was inaccurate, but rather press reporting was in accurate, particularly when it came to Mueller’s decision not to reach a conclusion on obstruction of justice.
But Mueller’s letter to Barr, which did not reference media reports, adds a whole new level of scrutiny for the attorney general, who was already facing sustained attacks from Democrats accusing Barr of mischaracterizing Mueller’s findings. Now Democrats have Mueller’s own words to back up their misgivings about the attorney general.
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 on Mueller’s conclusions, 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.
Democrats have also slammed Barr for claiming at a Senate subcommittee hearing that the Trump campaign was spied on, as well as for holding a press conference the morning before the report was released.
Barr made reference to the political storm he’s facing over the Mueller report in his prepared remarks and sought to distance himself from it.
“From here on, the exercise of responding and reacting to the report is a matter for the American people and the political process,” his prepared remarks state. “As I am sure you agree, it is vitally important for the Department of Justice to stand apart from the political process and not to become an adjunct of it.”
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. At the same time that Barr will be appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the House Judiciary Committee will be voting to allow Democratic and Republican staff a half-hour to question Barr — a stipulation that has the attorney general threatening not to show.
House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler demanded a copy of the letter after it was revealed Tuesday, and said it meant that Mueller also had to testify publicly.
“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,” 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.”
There wasn’t drama in the Senate over whether Barr would appear Wednesday, but that doesn’t mean the questions won’t be just as contentious from Senate Democrats on the Judiciary panel, including three — Sens. Klobuchar, Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey — who are running for President.
Republicans argue that Barr has provided much more of the Mueller report than he was required to disclose under the law. They say Democrats are simply lashing out at Barr because they are unhappy with the results of the Mueller investigation.
“They didn’t find what they wanted to in the Mueller report, and they now have to make it a sideshow to blame Barr,” said Rep. Doug Collins, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham said he spoke to Barr Tuesday evening by phone.
In his opening statement, Graham did not mention Mueller’s letter. He spent much of his statement launching into a lengthy discussion of the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton and the origins of the Russia investigation, vowing again to investigate the matter further in his committee.
“For me, it is over,” Graham said of the Mueller investigation.
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 President Donald Trump, when Mueller detailed numerous contacts between Trump’s team and Russians and instances where Trump sought to interfere in the investigation.
Democrats are also going to press Barr on the decision he and Rosenstein concluding there wasn’t sufficient evidence to prosecute an obstruction case, after Barr himself wrote before he was named attorney general that such a case was “fatally misconceived.”