WASHINGTON — Attorney General William Barr is criticizing special counsel Robert Mueller for not identifying grand jury material in his Russia report when he submitted it.
Barr says the Mueller team’s failure to do that slowed down the release of the public version of the report.
Barr testified Wednesday about his handling of the Mueller report before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The testimony comes after the release of a letter from Mueller. That letter reveals the special counsel had prepared the summaries of his two-volume report for immediate public release but Barr chose not to release them.
Barr instead wrote his own letter summarizing Mueller’s findings. Mueller’s letter says that Barr’s summary created “public confusion about critical aspects of the results” of the Russia probe.
A major focus of the hearing is likely to be the Tuesday night revelation that Mueller told Barr, in a letter to the Justice Department and in a phone call, that he was frustrated with how the conclusions of his investigation were being portrayed.
Barr also is 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.
The first hint of discontent surfaced last month when Barr issued a four-page statement that summarized what he said were the main conclusions of the Mueller report. In the letter, Barr revealed that he and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had cleared Trump of obstruction of justice after Mueller and his team found evidence on both sides of the question but didn’t reach a conclusion.
Barr is likely to defend himself by noting how he released the report on his own even though he didn’t have to under the special counsel regulations, and that doing so fulfilled a pledge he made at to be as transparent as the law allowed. Barr may say that he wanted to move quickly to give the public a summary of Mueller’s main findings as the Justice Department spent weeks redacting more sensitive information from the report.
After the letter’s release, Barr raised eyebrows anew when he told a congressional committee that he believed the Trump campaign had been spied on, a common talking point of the president and his supporters. A person familiar with Barr’s thinking has said Barr, a former CIA employee, did not mean spying in a necessarily inappropriate way and was simply referring to intelligence collection activities.
He also equivocated on a question of whether Mueller’s investigation was a witch hunt, saying someone who feels wrongly accused would reasonably view an investigation that way. That was a stark turnabout from his confirmation hearing, when he said he didn’t believe Mueller would ever be on a witch hunt.
Then came Barr’s April 18 press conference to announce the release of the Mueller report later that morning.
He repeated about a half dozen times that Mueller’s investigation had found no evidence of collusion between the campaign and Russia, though the special counsel took pains to note in his report that “collusion” was not a legal term and also pointed out the multiple contacts between the campaign and Russia.
In remarks that resembled some of Trump’s own claims, he praised the White House for giving Mueller’s team “unfettered access” to documents and witnesses. He suggested the president had the right to be upset by the investigation, given his “sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents, and fueled by illegal leaks.”