WASHINGTON | Donald Trump has found the attorney general he’s wanted all along.
Attorney General William Barr is sparring with congressional Democrats, defending Trump’s efforts to shut down the Russia probe and painting a sanitized picture of the president’s conduct in special counsel Robert Mueller’s report.
The performance received a warm Twitter reception from Trump, who has not been shy about wanting loyalty in his attorney general. A look at Barr’s rhetoric on the Russia investigation.
Barr has been a fierce advocate for Trump on the question of obstruction.
In explaining his decision that Trump didn’t commit a crime, Barr said he was swayed by how the president was “falsely accused” in the Russia investigation. According to Barr, Trump couldn’t have obstructed justice because he wasn’t concealing an underlying crime.
During testimony Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Barr said the president could have legally ended the Russia probe at any time.
“If it was a groundless proceeding, if it was based on false allegations, the president does not have to sit there, constitutionally, and allow it run its course,” Barr said. “The president could terminate that proceeding.”
Barr also gave Trump an out on publicly threatening his former aides not to “flip.”
Citing what he believed “the president’s lawyers would say,” Barr said what Trump meant by “flipping” is “succumbing to pressure on unrelated cases to lie” in exchange for leniency.
Discouraging in “that sense is not obstruction, he said.
At his confirmation hearing, Barr spoke about his closeness with Mueller, praised him as “straight shooter” and said the Barrs and the Muellers are “good friends” and would be when “all this is over.” But since taking over the Justice Department, that relationship appears to have frayed.
Referring to a letter Mueller sent him complaining about his handling of the Russia report, Barr called it “snitty.” The special counsel’s work ended upon submission of the report, he said.
“At that point, it was my baby,” Barr said, adding: “It was my decision how and when to make it public, not Bob Mueller’s.”
Barr also expressed frustration that Mueller chose to lay out evidence on both sides on the question of obstruction, rather than making a clean decision.
“I think that if he felt that he shouldn’t go down the path of making a traditional prosecutorial decision then he shouldn’t have investigated,” Barr said. “That was the time to pull up.”
PRAISING A ‘FULLY’ COOPERATIVE WHITE HOUSE
It’s true the White House allowed Mueller to interview dozens of officials, including White House counsel Don McGahn. The campaign also turned over 1.4 million pages of documents. In announcing the Mueller report, Barr went even further, saying Trump took “no act” that “deprived the special counsel of the documents and witnesses necessary to complete his investigation.” On Wednesday, Barr told lawmakers he believes Trump “fully cooperated.”
But Barr left out that Trump refused to sit for an interview and instead provided written responses, many of which involved the president saying he couldn’t recall specific details. Pressed by lawmakers about the lack of a presidential interview, Barr placed the blame on Mueller, not Trump.
The special counsel’s team found Trump’s written answers lacking, but Barr quipped of Mueller: “Well, he never pushed it.”
NOT THE LYING POLICE
Mueller’s report lays out several instances in which people around the president refused to carry out his orders because they felt they weren’t right or would require them to lie. One such instance occurred with McGahn.
In January 2018, the New York Times reported that Trump had directed McGahn to have Mueller fired, and McGahn had threatened to resign rather than carry out the order. After the story was published, Trump repeatedly directed McGahn to deny it, but McGahn said it was largely accurate. Trump had indeed ordered him to call the Justice Department and try to have Mueller removed, McGahn said, though he noted that some of the details in the story weren’t right.
According to Mueller’s report, Trump argued that he had just asked McGahn to raise the issue of whether Mueller had a conflict of interest with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and leave it to him to decide. But McGahn said that wasn’t what happened, an account he backed up with contemporaneous notes.
Under questioning about the president’s conduct, Barr said he didn’t think it amounted to obstruction because Trump “truly felt” the Times story was inaccurate. And he said trying to get a lawyer to change his story to avoid public criticism isn’t a crime.
“I am not in the business of determining when lies are told to the American people,” Barr said. “I am in the business of determining whether a crime has been committed.”
NO COLLUSION, NO COLLUSION
When he released the Mueller report, Barr stressed several times that the special counsel found no criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia. On Wednesday, Barr noted that as Trump “said from the beginning, there was in fact no collusion.”
The comments went beyond Mueller’s careful language.
Mueller wrote that he “did not establish” a criminal conspiracy between the campaign and the Russian government but found that the “campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts.” The report also contained a caveat.
“A statement that the investigation did not establish particular facts does not mean there was no evidence of those facts,” Mueller wrote.