Barr and Mueller rift on Russia investigation goes public

Special counsel was unhappy that Attorney General released conclusions lacking context on report into claims of Trump obstruction

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Attorney General William Barr testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing entitled "The Justice Department's Investigation of Russian Interference with the 2016 Presidential Election." on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., May 1, 2019. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein/File Photo
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Tension between US Justice Department leaders and Robert Mueller’s team was made public on Wednesday as Attorney General William Barr criticised the special counsel’s “snitty” complaints over his handling of the Trump-Russia investigation report.

Testifying for the first time since releasing Mr Mueller’s report, Mr Barr faced sharp questioning from Senate Democrats who accused him of making misleading comments and appearing to be President Donald Trump’s protector.

The rift fuelled allegations that the attorney general spun Mr Mueller’s findings in Mr Trump’s favour and understated the gravity of the president’s behaviour.

The dispute is certain to persist, as Democrats push to give Mr Mueller a chance to answer Mr Barr’s testimony this month.

Also on Wednesday, Mr Barr told the House judiciary committee that he would not appear for its scheduled hearing on Thursday because the panel insisted that he be questioned by lawyers as well as politicians.

That refusal could mean he is held in contempt of Congress.

At Wednesday’s Senate judiciary committee session, Mr Barr said he had been surprised that Mr Mueller did not reach a conclusion on whether Mr Trump had tried to obstruct justice.

He said he had felt compelled to step in with his own judgment that the president had committed no crime.

“I’m not really sure of his reasoning,” Mr Barr said of Mr Mueller’s analysis, which neither accused the president of a crime nor exonerated him.

If Mr Mueller felt he should not decide whether to bring charges, Mr Barr said, “then he shouldn’t have investigated. That was the time to pull up".

He said he was also perturbed by a private letter Mr Mueller, a longtime friend, sent him last month complaining that he had not properly portrayed his findings in the four-page letter summarising the report's main conclusions.

Mr Barr called the note “a bit snitty.”

“I said, ‘Bob, what’s with the letter? Just pick up the phone and call me if there is an issue',” he said.

The Justice Department leadership and Mr Mueller’s team had appeared unified for most of the two-year investigation into possible co-ordination between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 election.

That Mr Mueller, who had been publicly silent for the entire investigation, was agitated enough to send a letter to Mr Barr gave his words extra credibility with the Democrats.

The party accused Mr Barr of lying under oath last month when he denied that Mr Mueller’s team was unhappy with his summary.

Mr Mueller’s letter, dated March 27, showed he was unhappy that Barr released what he saw as the bottom-line conclusions of the investigation.

The special counsel said he believed the introductions and executive summaries his team had prepared conveyed more nuance and context than Mr Barr’s letter. Mr 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,” Mr Mueller wrote in the letter.

“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."

The attorney general downplayed Mr Mueller’s complaints, saying they were mostly about process, not substance, while raising a few objections of his own.

Mr Barr said that Mr Mueller did not, as requested, identify grand jury material in his report when he submitted it, slowing the public release of the report as the Justice Department worked to black out sensitive information.

“His concern was he wanted more out,” Mr Barr said.

He said Mr Mueller did not say that he had inaccurately summarised the investigation.

Mr Barr also insisted that once the special counsel submitted his report, his work was done and the document became “my baby".

“It was my decision how and when to make it public, not Bob Mueller's,” he said.

Wednesday’s contentious Senate hearing gave Mr Barr his most extensive chance to defend recent Justice Department actions, including a press conference before the report’s release and issuing a brief summary letter two days after getting the report.

But the hearing, which included three Democratic presidential candidates, also laid bare the partisan divide over the handling of Mr Mueller’s report.

Some Republicans defended Mr Trump and focused on his 2016 Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton's email and campaign practices, and what they argued has been a lack of investigation into them.

As the hearing was getting under way, Mr Trump tweeted his familiar message of: “No collusion, no obstruction.”

Mr Mueller reached no conclusion on obstruction he did report that his investigation established no criminal conspiracy between the Trump team and Russia.

Mr Barr said Mr Trump was “falsely accused” during the investigation and that the president therefore lacked the criminal intent required to commit obstruction.

“I didn’t exonerate," he said. "I said that we did not believe that there was sufficient evidence to establish an obstruction offence, which is the job of the Justice Department, and the job of the Justice Department is now over."

Democrats moved to exploit the rift between Mr Barr and Mr Mueller to impugn the attorney general’s credibility.

Some also called for Mr Barr to resign, or to recuse himself from Justice Department investigations from Mr Mueller’s probe.

“I think the American public can see quite well that you are biased in this situation and you have not been objective, and that would arguably be a conflict of interest,” said Senator Kamala Harris of California, one of the Democratic contenders for president.

They pressed him on whether he had misled Congress last month when, at an unrelated hearing, he professed ignorance about complaints from the special counsel's team.
Mr Barr suggested he had not lied because he was in touch with Mr Mueller, not his team.

Neither side on Wednesday broke much new ground on the specifics of Mr Mueller’s investigation, although Mr Barr did give a robust defence of Mr Trump as he made clear his firm conviction that there was no prosecutable case for obstruction of justice.

He was asked by Senator Dianne Feinstein, the committee’s top Democrat, about an episode recounted in Mr Mueller’s report where Mr Trump pressed White House Counsel Don McGahn to seek the removal of the special counsel over conflict of interest.

He then asked Mr McGahn to deny a press report that such a directive had been given.

“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,” Mr Barr said.