The U.S. Justice Department head defended his handling of the Russia interference report on Wednesday after it emerged that lead investigator Robert Mueller had questioned his decision to declare that it cleared President Donald Trump.
Facing allegations that he “whitewashed” the Mueller report, Attorney General Bill Barr told the Senate Judiciary Committee that after receiving it in March, it was his “baby” and therefore his prerogative to sum up its conclusions.
The Democrats are debating whether Trump should be impeached for obstruction of justice based on the evidence set out in Mueller’s 448-page report into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Barr rejected accusations that he misrepresented the Russia probe’s conclusions when he declared in a March 24 memo that it did not support criminal charges against Trump.
But top Democrats including Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris – both of whom are presidential candidates – have called for Barr to resign, arguing he mislead the American public in an effort to defend Trump and has tarnished his credibility.
“The Attorney General does not swear an oath of loyalty to any one individual. The AG swears an oath of loyalty to the Constitution of the United States,” Warren said in a tweet. “Barr has made clear that he doesn’t swear his loyalty that way & that disqualifies him from being AG. He should resign.”
Rep. Jerry Nadler, a Democrat who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, also accused Barr of lying to Congress.
“I think there are great difficulties for the attorney general at this point. Besides the fact that he clearly misled the American people, he seems to have testified non-truthfully to the Senate and the House, which raises major questions,” Nadler said following Wednesday’s hearing.
Watch: Sen. Kamala Harris says "yes" when asked if she thinks Barr should resign pic.twitter.com/YwAJIxehXI
— Newsweek (@Newsweek) May 1, 2019
In a previously private March 27 letter to Barr made public Tuesday, Mueller complained that the attorney general’s four-page summary “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance” of his conclusions, and had generated “public confusion.”
The letter also made clear that at least twice in March, Mueller proposed that his boss make public the investigation’s own summaries first, and that Barr had ignored that idea to release his version.
Barr’s summary of the report, the result of a two-year investigation which saw six former Trump aides convicted of various crimes, had a significant political impact.
It allowed Trump to declare “complete and total exoneration” over accusations of conspiracy with Russia and obstruction of justice, and to claim that it proved the Mueller probe was a politicized “witch hunt.”
But the full, redacted report released on April 18 painted an altogether more damaging picture of the president’s conduct.
Mueller said his team did not find sufficient evidence that Trump’s campaign criminally conspired with Russians, but the report detailed repeated efforts by the Trump team to engage with Russians and to benefit from the sabotage.
Mueller also laid out a damning pattern of obstructive behavior by the president and suggested Congress itself should investigate. But he declined to give his own opinion on whether Trump had committed a crime.
Barr told lawmakers he was surprised to find Mueller not making a decision on the obstruction issue, and said it would have been “irresponsible and unfair” to release the report without reaching a conclusion.
He said his own summary had been an attempt to “notify the people of the bottom-line conclusion.”
‘Public Relations Effort’
In testy exchanges with Democrats, Barr branded Mueller’s letter as “a bit snitty” and “probably written by one of his staff people.”
“It was my decision how and when to make it public, not Bob Mueller’s,” he said of the report.
Corey Booker, who is also seeking the Democratic party’s 2020 presidential nomination, assailed Barr for not criticizing the behavior of Trump and his campaign documented by Mueller even if it did not rise up to a crime.
“You seem to be excusing a campaign that had hundreds of contacts with a foreign adversary,” Booker said.
“Your conduct seems to be trying to normalize that behavior.”
Harris alleged that Barr had conflicts of interest that should have prevented his involvement in the investigation.
Another Democratic senator, Maizie Hirono, accused Barr of a “public relations effort” to protect Trump.
“You used every advantage of your office to create the impression that the president was cleared of misconduct,” she said.
Barr attempted to brush off the criticism, arguing that, whatever he announced, the 448-page report is now public for everyone to examine.
“The job of the Justice Department is now over… The report is now in the hands of the American people,” Barr said.
“Everyone can decide for themselves. There’s an election in 18 months. We have to stop using the criminal justice process as a political weapon,” he added.