⏩ Barr, Mueller trade barbs as Russia probe rift goes public.
WASHINGTON — Private tensions between Justice Department leaders and Robert Mueller’s team broke into public view in extraordinary fashion Wednesday as Attorney General William Barr pushed back at the special counsel’s “snitty” complaints over his handling of the Trump-Russia investigation report.
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 had 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.”
Barr was also perturbed by a private letter Mueller sent him last month complaining that the attorney general had not properly portrayed the special counsel’s finding. Barr called the note “a bit snitty.”
“I said, ‘Bob, what’s with the letter? Just pick up the phone and call me if there is an issue,’ ” Barr said.
The airing of disagreements over the handling of the report followed Mueller’s two-year investigation into Russian interference to help Trump in the 2016 campaign and the possibility that Trump’s team conspired with the Russians. During most of the investigation, the Justice Department and Mueller’s team seemed to be unified in approach.
Republican and Democratic lawmakers have been anything but unified. And their partisan divide was on full display during Wednesday’s contentious Judiciary Committee hearing, which included three Democratic presidential candidates.
Some Republicans, in addition to defending Trump, focused on the president’s 2016 Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton’s email and campaign practices and what they argued has been a lack of investigation of them.
As the hearing was getting underway, Trump tweeted his familiar “NO COLLUSION, NO OBSTRUCTION.” Though Mueller reached no conclusion on obstruction, he did report that his probe established no collusion between the Trump team and Russia.
Democrats, for their part, moved to exploit the daylight between Barr and Mueller to attack the attorney general’s credibility and accuse him of unduly spinning the special counsel’s report in the president’s favor. Some also called for Barr to resign, or to recuse himself from Justice Department investigations that have been spun off from Mueller’s probe.
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.
Unswayed, Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont said, “Mr. Barr, I feel your answer was purposely misleading, and I believe others do too.”
Barr sought to minimize the rift by suggesting the special counsel’s concerns were largely about process, not substance.
Barr’s appearance gave him his most extensive opportunity to explain the department’s actions, including his press conference held before the Mueller report’s release.
Barr has also been invited to appear Thursday before the Democratic-led House Judiciary panel, but the Justice Department has said he would not testify if the committee insisted on having its lawyers question him.
Neither side broke much new 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.
Attorney General William Barr testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the Mueller Report on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.