WASHINGTON — 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.