WASHINGTON — Attorney General William Barr on Wednesday defended his handling of Robert Mueller’s report and rejected Mueller’s complaints about his summary of its conclusions while criticizing the special counsel for failing to make a judgment on obstruction.
In his first appearance before Congress since he released a redacted version of the report, Barr parried and pushed back on Democrats’ questions about his decision to clear President Donald Trump of obstructing the probe and his characterization of Mueller’s conclusions.
“I think that the government did not have a prosecutable case,” Barr told a sometimes testy Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, declaring that Mueller’s examination of at least 10 episodes of potential obstruction fell short of being able to indict because of insufficient evidence.
Barr also rejected Democrats’ charges that he misled the public about Mueller’s findings, and he deflected questions about a Mueller letter, disclosed Tuesday, that complained Barr's March 24 summary of conclusions didn’t “fully capture the context, nature and substance” of the report.
Barr said he called Mueller when he got the letter. “I asked him if he was suggesting that the March 24th letter was inaccurate, and he said no, but that the press reporting had been inaccurate,” Barr said, adding Mueller “wanted more put out” on the obstruction question.
Later, Barr dismissed the Mueller letter, saying it is “a bit snitty and I think it was probably written by one of his staff people.”
And Barr took a shot at Mueller, saying he was “surprised” he decided to make no judgment on obstruction, adding, “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."
Barr's long day being grilled by senators could be his last public testimony for a while — he canceled his planned appearance Thursday before the House Judiciary Committee after its chairman, Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), insisted on having the panel's lawyers question him.
In the Senate hearing, Democrats kept coming back to Mueller’s dissatisfaction, raising doubts about Barr’s version of his phone call with Mueller, and repeatedly challenging Barr’s view that Mueller’s findings that Trump tried to end or curtail the 22-month probe were not acts of obstruction.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the committee chairman, said he would ask Mueller if he agreed with Barr’s version of the conversation about his letter of complaint.
Senators also attacked Barr’s credibility as an independent attorney general.
Accusing Barr of choosing “to be the president's lawyer,” Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), said, “You put the power and authority of the office of the attorney general and the Department of Justice behind a public relations effort to help Donald Trump protect himself.”
Graham reprimanded Hirono, saying, “You’ve slandered this man.”
Later in the hearing, Barr said he wanted to respond to Hirono.
“Two years of his administration have been dominated by the allegations that have now been proven false,” Barr said. “And, you know, to listen to some of the rhetoric, you would think that the Mueller report had found the opposite."
Democrats and Barr disagreed about the significance of the evidence in Mueller’s 448-page final report that said the probe did not establish that Trump criminally conspired with Russian election interference efforts and did not charge, or exonerate, Trump on obstruction.
Barr said he took that to mean Mueller had left the decision to him, and he decided not to charge Trump with obstruction because of insufficient evidence and no malign intent in Trump’s actions against an investigation that he said hampered his ability to govern.
But Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) asked Barr about the report’s finding about one of several attempts by Trump to remove Mueller or curtail the investigation — directing then-White House counsel Don McGahn to tell Rosenstein that Mueller had conflicts and should be removed.
McGahn did not carry out the order. Later, after newspapers reported that attempt, Trump asked McGahn to write a memo denying he had asked him to fire Mueller. McGahn refused.
“Is that a credible charge under the obstruction statute?” Feinstein asked.
Barr said it could come down to semantics.
“There is a distinction between saying to someone, ‘Go fire him, go fire Mueller,’ and saying, ‘Have him removed based on conflict,’ Barr said. “If you remove someone for a conflict of interest, then there would be, presumably, another person appointed.”
Sen Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and others accused Barr of lying about Mueller’s dissatisfaction with his summary of conclusions when asked in April appropriations hearings about news reports that Mueller’s team felt he had mischaracterized their findings.
“I talked directly to Bob Mueller, not members of his team,” Barr said. Leahy replied, “I feel your answer was purposefully misleading and I think others do, too.”
After the hearing, Graham said, “The politics of this will continue. The legal part of this is over.”