WASHINGTON (AP) — Private tensions between Justice Department leaders and special counsel Robert Mueller’s team broke into public view in extraordinary fashion Wednesday as Attorney General William Barr pushed back at complaints over his handling of the Trump-Russia investigation report and aimed his own criticism at the special counsel.
Testifying for the first time since releasing Mueller’s report, Barr said he was surprised Mueller did not reach a conclusion on whether President Donald Trump had tried to obstruct justice, and that he felt compelled to step in with his own judgment that the president had committed no crime.
“I’m not really sure of his reasoning,” Barr said of Mueller’s obstruction analysis, which neither accused the president of a crime nor exonerated him. “I think that if he felt that he shouldn’t go down the path of making a traditional prosecutive decision then he shouldn’t have investigated. That was the time to pull up.”
The airing of disagreements over the handling of the report was notable given the highly secretive nature of the special counsel’s investigation and the public appearance for at least most of the probe that the Justice Department and Mueller’s team were unified in approach. But Barr sought to minimize the rift by suggesting the special counsel’s concerns were largely about process, not substance.
Barr’s appearance Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee gave him his most extensive opportunity to explain the department’s actions, including his press conference held before the Mueller report’s release. It was also a forum for him to repair a reputation bruised by allegations that he’s the Republican president’s protector and by the emergence of a private letter from Mueller that criticized his handling of the report.
Democrats seized on the daylight between the two men to attack Barr’s credibility and accuse him of unduly spinning Mueller’s report in the president’s favor. They also pressed him on whether he had misled Congress last month when he professed ignorance about complaints from the special counsel’s team. Barr suggested he had not lied because he was in touch with Mueller himself and not his team.
“Mr. Barr, I feel your answer was purposely misleading, and I believe others do too,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
While Democratic senators bluntly questioned Barr’s actions, Republicans, in addition to defending Trump, focused on the president’s 2016 Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton’s email and campaign practices and what they feel is a lack of investigation of them.
Barr has also been invited to appear Thursday before the Democratic-led House Judiciary panel, but the Justice Department said he would not testify if the committee insisted on having its lawyers question the attorney general.
Neither side broke much ground Wednesday on the specifics of Mueller’s investigation, though Barr did articulate a robust defense of Trump as he made clear his firm conviction that there was no prosecutable case against the president for obstruction of justice.
He was asked by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the committee’s top Democrat, about an episode recounted in Mueller’s report in which Trump pressed White House counsel Don McGahn to seek the removal of Mueller on conflict-of-interest grounds. Trump then asked McGahn to deny a press report that such a directive had been given.
Barr responded, “There’s something very different firing a special counsel outright, which suggests ending an investigation, and having a special counsel removed for conflict — which suggests you’re going to have another special counsel.”