Barr defends handling of Mueller report in Senate

Attorney General William Barr appears at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 1, 2019, on the Mueller Report. (Andrew Harnik/AP photo via Courthouse News)

WASHINGTON (CN) – Attorney General William Barr defended his representation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report Wednesday, telling lawmakers that despite Mueller’s concerns Barr failed to capture the substance of the report, it was the news media that distorted his initial summary.

“The body politic was in a high state of agitation,” Barr said at the first, highly anticipated hearing Congress has held since the public release of Mueller’s redacted report last month.

Barr spoke before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday and is also expected to go before the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday.

Explaining the process behind his decision to publish his initial four-page summary describing his “bottom-line” conclusions of Mueller’s two-year investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, Barr told members of the committee Wednesday he did what the Justice Department would “normally do” and he made a determination based on whether a crime occurred.

“I analogize it to announcing the verdict after an extended trial, pending a full release of a transcript. That’s what we’re trying to do: notify people of the bottom line conclusions, not summarize the full report,” he said.

Barr also said he offered Mueller a chance to review his summary but the special counsel declined.

“I asked him if the summary was inaccurate and he said no. The press reporting on it was inaccurate,” Barr said, before noting that Mueller was “very clear” he believed Barr’s summary had not ultimately misrepresented the special counsel’s findings.

Despite Barr’s claims that the media misconstrued his summary and that Mueller took no issue with the description, the attorney general also testified Wednesday that Mueller did express concern that Barr failed to accurately represent why he did not reach a conclusion on obstruction of justice by President Donald Trump.

Mueller wanted to issue several summaries of each volume in the report, Barr recalled.

But the attorney general had no interest in releasing the report “piecemeal,” saying Wednesday he didn’t feel it would be in the public interest to allow any further delay.

He told Congress, he was “frankly surprised” that Mueller did not reach a conclusion on the obstruction matter.

But according to a March 27 letter released only an hour before Wednesday’s hearing, Mueller twice asked Barr to publish additional investigative findings from the report.

The first request was made on March 25, a day after Barr released the four-page summary appearing to clear Trump of wrongdoing. The second request came just two days later.

Barr’s summary did not “fully capture the context, nature and substance of this office’s work and conclusions,” Mueller wrote. “There is now public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation.”

Democrats on the committee pressed Barr on why he claimed during his testimony before the Senate last month to be unaware of any issues members of Mueller’s investigative team might have had with his summary.

“I don’t know what members of the team were being talked about,” Barr told Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont.

Barr also defended the president Wednesday, saying Trump was not trying to quash the investigation by removing Mueller.

“There is a distinction between saying to someone, ‘Go fire him, go fire Mueller’ or, ‘Have him removed because of conflict,” Barr said, referring to former White House counsel Don McGahn.

According to the special counsel’s report, McGahn told Mueller that Trump twice called him and directed him to tell the Department of Justice that Mueller should be removed due to an unspecified potential conflict of interest. McGahn refused.

The attorney general told a skeptical Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., that the president only meant to have the conflict of interest issue raised with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and that any decision to fire Mueller should be left to Rosenstein.

“But you still have a situation where the president tries to change a lawyer’s account in order to prevent further criticism of himself,” Feinstein said.

“Well, that’s not a crime. To be obstruction, it has to impair the evidence in a particular proceeding. McGahn already gave his evidence to Mueller,” Barr said.