Attorney General William Barr on Wednesday defended his handling of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report at a tense Senate hearing, explaining in detail his contacts with Mueller, who had objected to his description of the report's findings on obstruction.
In sworn testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Barr said he wanted to release the report’s bottom-line conclusions as quickly as possible because the public was in a “high state of agitation” over the results of Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference and potential coordination between President Trump’s campaign and Moscow.
“Former government officials were confidently predicting that the president or members of his family would be indicted,” Barr told senators in his opening remarks.
Barr said he didn’t believe it was in the “public interest” to allow the public to wonder about Mueller’s conclusions while Justice Department officials pored over the report to make necessary redactions.
He also appeared to put the blame on Mueller for the weeks needed to make the redactions, noting that the report filed to the Department of Justice on March 22 was not marked so that grand jury material could be easily and quickly redacted.
“That’s what we were trying to do — notify the people of the bottom-line conclusions,” Barr told lawmakers, saying he was not trying to “summarize” the report when he released a four-page memo on March 24 stating Mueller did not establish conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Moscow and did not reach a conclusion on whether the president obstructed justice.
Barr’s testimony follows the explosive revelation that Mueller wrote to him on March 27 objecting to the attorney general’s memo describing his findings, with the special counsel saying it “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance” of his conclusions.
"The summary letter the Department sent to Congress and released to the public late in the afternoon of March 24 did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance of this office’s work and conclusions," Mueller wrote in the letter. "There is now public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation. 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 said Wednesday that Mueller reached out to him with concerns after his summary letter was released, but said the concerns were with media coverage, not the letter itself.
While Barr said Mueller wanted more put out publicly on his explanation for why he did not reach a conclusion on obstruction of justice, “he was very clear with me that he was not suggesting that we had misrepresented his report.”
The attorney general also said he had offered Mueller the opportunity to review his March 24 letter, but that the special counsel declined.
Barr said he told Mueller that he didn’t want to issue summaries or release the report in pieces and that he sought to clarify parts of his previous letter with a new letter reiterating that his summary only related to the special counsel’s bottom-line conclusions.
Barr also reiterated that Mueller had told him in a meeting in early March that his decision to not charge Trump with obstruction of justice was not related to Justice Department guidance stating that a sitting president cannot be indicted.
“He said that in the future, the facts of the case might be such that a special counsel might consider abandoning the OLC opinion,” the attorney general said, referring to the Office of Legal Counsel. “This is not such a case.”
Ultimately, Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein determined the evidence to be insufficient to accuse Trump of criminal wrongdoing.
Trump has seized on Barr’s four-page letter as vindicating him of allegations pertaining to Russia “collusion” and obstruction. Democrats, meanwhile, have excoriated Barr’s handling of Mueller’s findings and accused him of misrepresenting them in a way that benefitted the president.
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