Barr Confronts Lawmakers as Dispute With Mueller Is Revealed
(Bloomberg) -- Attorney General William Barr will face new scrutiny from lawmakers on Wednesday after a revelation surfaced that he misrepresented Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s findings about whether President Donald Trump obstructed justice.
Mueller contacted Barr to express his displeasure after Barr issued a four-page letter in March characterizing the main findings of Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, the Justice Department confirmed late Tuesday, less than a day before the attorney general’s scheduled appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“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, according to The Washington Post, which reported earlier Tuesday on the disagreement between the two men.
Mueller wrote that Barr’s letter created “public confusion” about important parts of the results of the special counsel’s 22-month probe. “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,” Mueller wrote, according to the Post.
In a statement prepared for Wednesday’s hearing, Barr recounts and defends his process for handling Mueller’s report without mentioning the disagreement with the special counsel.
The attorney general also indicated that he and other department officials would stop publicly discussing the report because it “is a matter for the American people and the political process,” according to the statement, which was released by the Justice Department on Tuesday night.
The disagreement ratchets up tensions over the handling of Mueller’s final report, as the attorney general prepares to testify for the first time about the Russian investigation before the Judiciary committee on Wednesday.
House Intelligence committee Chairman Adam Schiff, in an interview Wednesday on CBS, went as far as calling on Barr to resign over allegations he gave deliberately false statements to Congress about the interaction with Mueller.
“There’s no sugar-coating this, I think he should step down. It’s hard, I think, for the country to have confidence in the top law enforcement official in the country if he’s asked a direct question as he was and he gives a directly false answer,” Schiff said.
Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said in a statement Tuesday evening that Barr called Mueller after receiving the special counsel’s letter.
“In a cordial and professional conversation, the special counsel emphasized that nothing in the attorney general’s March 24 letter was inaccurate or misleading,” Kupec said in the statement. “But, he expressed frustration over the lack of context and the resulting media coverage regarding the special counsel’s obstruction analysis.”
The dispute also has called into question testimony that Barr has given Congress since his March 24 letter.
Barr was asked whether Mueller supported his conclusion that Trump didn’t obstruct justice on April 10 while testifying before a Senate appropriations subcommittee.
“I don’t know whether Bob Mueller supported my conclusion,” Barr said.
Barr said in his letter, and in a news conference shortly before the report was released, that Mueller had closed his inquiry without deciding whether Trump had obstructed justice. Barr said that meant he needed to make the decision. He said that he, along with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, concluded that there wasn’t sufficient evidence for criminal charges.
Barr’s characterization of Mueller’s findings stood uncontested until a redacted version of Mueller’s report was released on April 18.
In fact, Mueller said he didn’t make a “traditional” prosecution judgment on obstruction, mainly because he decided to abide by a Justice Department policy that says a sitting president cannot be indicted.
Yet he cited at least 10 examples of efforts to interfere in the investigation and pointedly added, “If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the president clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment.”
Kupec, the Justice Department spokeswoman, said Barr and Mueller discussed in their phone call whether additional context from the report could be quickly released.
“However, the Attorney General ultimately determined that it would not be productive to release the report in piecemeal fashion,” Kupec said. “The attorney general and the special counsel agreed to get the full report out with necessary redactions as expeditiously as possible.”
While Barr may receive friendly questioning on Wednesday from Republicans who control the Senate panel, he’ll be challenged by Democrats who contend that he’s misrepresented evidence from Mueller that Trump sought to obstruct justice.
A hearing scheduled for Thursday before the Democratic-led House Judiciary Committee may be even more acrimonious -- if it takes place. The Justice Department has resisted a format that would let the committee’s Democratic and Republican counsels grill Barr for as long as 30 minutes at a stretch after initial five-minute exchanges with lawmakers.
Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler of New York, said Tuesday night that “the special counsel’s concerns reflect our own. The attorney general should not have taken it upon himself to describe the special counsel’s findings in a light more favorable to the president. It was only a matter of time before the facts caught up to him.”
A House subpoena issued by Nadler calls for the production of the entire report, and underlying material, by Wednesday.
Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee, however, expressed confidence in Barr’s handling of the release of the Mueller report, according to Jessica Andrews, a spokeswoman.
“As the Senate Judiciary Committee prepares for tomorrow’s hearing,” she said Tuesday night, “House Democrats have another opportunity to put partisan politics aside and recognize Attorney General Barr has conducted himself in an exemplary manner.”
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