Barr Mounts Dual Defense of Role in Mueller Probe and of Trump

(Bloomberg) -- Attorney General William Barr pulled double duty during testimony before senators on Wednesday, defending both his summary of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report and the president who appointed him.

In a contentious Senate Judiciary hearing, Barr deflected attacks by Democrats on his decision to oppose an urgent request by Mueller to publicly release summaries of the Russia investigation, and he repeatedly excused conduct by President Donald Trump that the special counsel said could constitute obstruction of justice.

Barr Mounts Dual Defense of Role in Mueller Probe and of Trump

The attorney general’s robust defense of Trump prompted several Democrats to call him biased and demand his resignation. Barr is scheduled to appear again Thursday, this time before the Democratic-controlled House Judiciary panel, where he could face even tougher questioning. But it’s unclear whether he will show up amid a dispute over the format of the hearing.

Barr told senators that none of the actions taken by Trump met the necessary legal requirements to be charged as crimes and proven beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury, including directing his White House counsel to fire Mueller and trying to get the previous attorney general to reverse his recusal from overseeing the investigation.

Barr went a step further, saying there’s evidence that Trump was the victim of false accusations.

Trump has been dogged “by two years of allegations --- by allegations that have now been proven false,” he said. At various points during the hearing, Barr said Trump was “falsely accused” of colluding with Russians and being a Russian agent, and that the evidence shows the allegation is “without a basis.”

Mueller, however, didn’t report that Trump was falsely accused. Instead, the report said that “while the investigation identified numerous links between individuals with ties to the Russian government and individuals associated with the Trump campaign, the evidence was not sufficient to support criminal charges.”

The special counsel’s report also said that “the investigation did not always yield admissible information or testimony, or a complete picture of the activities undertaken by subjects of the investigation.” Mueller’s team noted that some individuals invoked their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination, while others provided “false of incomplete” information.

At another point in the hearing, Barr described for the committee what he believed Trump’s lawyers would offer as a defense about an episode detailed in Mueller’s report where Trump sought to stop his former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, from "flipping" and cooperating with law enforcement. He adopted the president’s definition of “flipping” -- being persuaded by prosecutors to lie.

Barr several times described what he thought Trump’s motives were in some of the episodes that Mueller investigated for possible obstruction. But Mueller never secured an interview with Trump, who agreed only to answer limited written questions from the special counsel on selected topics. “He never pushed it,” Barr said of Mueller.

Barr Mounts Dual Defense of Role in Mueller Probe and of Trump

Senator Mazie Hirono, a Democrat from Hawaii, lobbed the most blistering criticism of Barr during the hearing.

“You’ve chosen to be the president’s lawyer and sided with him over the interests of the American people," Hirono said, adding that he should resign. "You lied. And now we know."

"Do you think it’s OK for the president to ask his White House counsel to lie?" Hirono asked Barr.

Barr hedged and wouldn’t say. "I’m willing to talk about what’s criminal," he said.

‘Slandered This Man’

Republican Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham cut off Hirono, saying of Barr: "You slandered this man from top to bottom."

While Democrats dug in, Republicans sought to put their focus as much on the genesis of the Russia investigation, which they say was tainted at the start by anti-Trump bias. Graham even said of the Mueller probe: “For me, it’s over."

Senator Kamala Harris of California, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, challenged Barr on whether he should recuse himself from overseeing any of the 12 open cases that Mueller referred to other attorneys in the Justice Department

Barr said he doesn’t see "any basis" for consulting with career Justice Department ethics officials on the appropriateness of his role.

“You’re biased in this situation,” Harris replied. She later used Twitter to call for Barr to resign.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders praised Barr on Twitter, saying that “Democrats only disgrace and humiliate themselves with their baseless attacks on such a fine public servant.”

In the end, Barr expressed no regrets for any of his controversial actions since Mueller submitted his final report, and left no doubt that he’ll continue to defend the Trump’s actions that the special counsel investigated.

Disputed Letter

The hearing also examined disputes between Barr and Mueller, particularly over a four-page letter that Barr issued on March 24 summarizing Mueller’s principal conclusions. The letter first surfaced on the eve of the hearing.

Barr testified that he talked to Mueller after issuing his letter and that Mueller "was very clear to me that he was not suggesting we had misrepresented his report." Instead, Mueller was upset that his investigative findings weren’t being accurately represented in media reports, Barr told the committee.

However, Mueller told Barr in a letter on March 27 that his summary "did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance of this Office’s work and conclusions."

In his letter, Mueller urged Barr to immediately release more information about the investigation. Mueller included documents with his letter that he said were ripe for being sent to Congress and publicly released.

Barr said he decided against releasing the material, as he didn’t want to put information out in a piecemeal fashion.

“He wanted to put out the full executive summaries that were incorporated in the report," Barr said. "I said to him that I wasn’t interested.”

“It was my baby to decide whether or not to disclose it to the public," said Barr, who called Mueller’s letter “a bit snitty” and speculated that “it was probably written by one of his staff.”

Barr finally released a redacted version of Mueller’s 448-page report on April 18.

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