William Barr defiant amid calls to resign over his handling of Mueller report

Lauren Gambino in Washington


The US attorney general, William Barr, has defended his handling of the special counsel Robert Mueller’s report as Democrats called for his resignation and accused him of deliberately misrepresenting the investigation’s findings in the president’s favor.

Barr appeared before Congress on Wednesday, delivering his first public testimony since he released a partially redacted version of Mueller’s report into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and potential collusion or obstruction by Donald Trump and his associates.

He clashed with Democrats on the Senate judiciary committee over his credibility and dismissed Mueller’s concerns over the attorney general’s characterization of his office’s work.

Democrats seized on a recently revealed private letter from Mueller to Barr, dated 27 March, in which the special counsel stated that the attorney general’s initial summary did not “fully capture the context, nature and substance of this office’s work and conclusions”.

In testimony, Barr called the letter “a bit snitty” and suggested that it might have been written by a member of Mueller’s staff rather than the special counsel. After reading the letter, Barr told lawmakers, he called Mueller by phone to discuss the matter.

According to Barr, Mueller’s concern about his summary, which was released to Congress weeks before a redacted version of the report was made public, “focused on his explanation of why he did not reach a conclusion on obstruction and he wanted more put out on that issue”. He added that Mueller was not upset with Barr’s characterization but with how it had been interpreted and portrayed in media coverage.

“He was very clear with me that he was not suggesting that we had misrepresented his report,” Barr said.

The Democratic 2020 candidate Elizabeth Warren called for Barr to resign, and was joined by fellow candidates and Senators Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand.

The committee member Mazie Hirono, a Democrat of Hawaii, accused Barr of lying to Congress and called on him to resign.

“You used every advantage of your office to create the impression that the president was cleared of misconduct,” she said.

“You lied to Congress,” she added, referring to Barr’s testimony at an earlier hearing that he did not know what objections Mueller’s team had to his summary – even though Mueller had already written his letter. “You knew. You lied. And now we know.”

Barr called the controversy over his handling of the Mueller report “mind-bendingly bizarre”.

After a nearly two-year investigation, Mueller concluded that there was insufficient evidence to support allegations that Trump’s 2016 campaign engaged in a criminal conspiracy with Russia.

But the report details a series of actions that Trump undertook in an effort to impede the Russia inquiry, though Mueller did not reach a conclusion on whether the president had obstructed justice. In his summary to Congress, Barr said that those actions did not constitute the crime of obstruction.

In a forceful defense of the president, Barr described Trump as a man who had been “falsely accused” who would have been justified in exercising his executive authority to end the investigation.

In another exchange, Barr was asked about one of the most explosive episodes in the report: when Trump ordered the former White House counsel Donald McGahn to fire the special counsel. Barr, in his testimony, said that Trump only wanted to remove Mueller because of alleged conflicts of interest.

“There’s something very different between firing a special counsel outright,” Barr said, “and having a special counsel removed for conflict, which suggests you’re going to have another special counsel.”

In his testimony, Barr said he was “surprised” that Mueller did not reach a conclusion on whether Trump obstructed justice and contended that it was his role as attorney general to make a final determination.

“His work concluded when he sent his report to the attorney general,” Barr said. “At that point, it was my baby.”

In his letter, Mueller wrote that Barr’s summary of the special counsel’s 448-page report did not “fully capture the context, nature, and substance” of his office’s work and findings and that “there is now public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation”.

Barr told lawmakers he called Mueller on the same day to discuss the letter, and insisted that he came away from the conversation assured that his interpretation of the report was accurate. He said Mueller complained that the media’s coverage of Barr’s summary of the report lacked nuance.

Barr said he released the initial summary characterizing Mueller’s “bottom-line conclusions” due to intense public interest.

“The body politic was in a high state of agitation,” he said, noting that TV analysts and commentators were suggesting that a delay in releasing the report might mean Trump was facing legal trouble.

Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, asked Barr why he had testified that he was unaware of Mueller’s concerns about his summary of the special counsel’s report, when he had spoken to Mueller about those concerns.

Barr made a fine distinction: he said he was responding to media reports that members of Mueller’s team had expressed frustration about the summary, as opposed to Mueller himself.

“I don’t know what that refers to at all,” Barr told Leahy. “I talked directly to Bob Mueller, not members of his team.”

“I feel your answer was purposely misleading,” Leahy said.

In another exchange, senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat of Rhode Island, asked why Barr hadn’t released Mueller’s letter after lawmakers raised the issue during his April testimony.

“He asked me a very different question,” Barr contended.

“Boy, that’s some masterful hairsplitting,” Whitehouse said, shaking his head.

Republicans followed with a markedly different line of questioning. They were interested in comments Barr made during a previous appearance before Congress in which he said he would investigate whether the FBI had engaged in improper “spying” on Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Barr defended his use of the term “spying”. He said he was not aware of a pejorative connotation to the word and told lawmakers it was “a good English word” to use.

Barr was scheduled to testify on Thursday before the House judiciary committee, but that appearance was thrown into doubt amid a dispute over Democrats’ desire to have staff lawyers, as opposed to lawmakers, question the attorney general.

Jerry Nadler, chairman of the House judiciary committee, meanwhile, said the panel was still trying to nail down a date in May for Mueller to testify.