The US Justice Department head defended his handling of the Russia interference report on Wednesday after it emerged that lead investigator Robert Mueller had questioned his decision to declare that it cleared President Donald Trump.
Facing allegations that he “whitewashed” the Mueller report, Attorney General Bill Barr told the Senate Judiciary Committee that after receiving it in March, it was his “baby” and therefore his prerogative to sum up its conclusions.
The Democrats are debating whether Trump should be impeached for obstruction of justice based on the evidence set out in Mueller’s 448-page report into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Barr rejected accusations that he misrepresented its conclusions when he declared in a March 24 memo that it did not support criminal charges against Trump.
In a previously private March 27 letter to Barr made public Tuesday, Mueller complained that the attorney general’s four-page summary “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance” of his conclusions, and had generated “public confusion.”
The letter also made clear that at least twice in March Mueller proposed that his boss make public the investigation’s own summaries first, and that Barr had ignored that idea to release his version.
Barr’s summary of the report, the result of a two-year investigation which saw six former Trump aides convicted of various crimes, had a significant political impact.
It allowed Trump to declare “complete and total exoneration” over accusations of conspiracy with Russia and obstruction of justice, and to claim that it proved that the Mueller probe was a politicized “witch hunt.”
But when Barr released a redacted version of the full report on April 18, it painted an altogether more damaging picture of the president’s conduct.
Mueller said his team did not find evidence that Trump’s campaign criminally conspired with Russians, but the report detailed repeated efforts by the Trump team to benefit from the sabotage.
Mueller also laid out a damning pattern of obstructive behavior by the president and suggested Congress itself should investigate. But he declined to give his own opinion on whether Trump had committed a crime.
Barr told lawmakers he was surprised to find Mueller not making a decision on the obstruction issue, and said it would have been “irresponsible and unfair” to release the report without reaching a conclusion.
He said his own summary had been an attempt to “notify the people of the bottom-line conclusion.”
– ‘It was my decision’ –
In testy exchanges with Democrats, Barr dismissed concerns about Mueller’s letter, while skirting questions about his previous testimony to Congress, when he said he had not received any objection from Mueller about his handling of the report.
“It was my decision how and when to make it public, not Bob Mueller’s,” he said.
The hearing made clear that Democrats remain convinced that Trump did obstruct justice but are unable to decide on whether to open an impeachment action against him based on the Mueller report now that the Justice Department has declined to pursue the issue further.
More ire was directed at Barr himself Wednesday.
“Attorney General Barr should resign,” said Democratic Representative Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
“He misled the American people with his inaccurate summary of Mueller’s report. Then he misled the Congress when he denied knowledge of Mueller’s concerns.”
“AG Barr is a disgrace, and his alarming efforts to suppress the Mueller report show that he’s not a credible head of federal law enforcement,” said Senator Elizabeth Warren in a tweet.
“He should resign — and based on the actual facts in the Mueller report, Congress should begin impeachment proceedings against the President.”