Monday 19 August 2019

US attorney general ‘surprised’ by Mueller’s view on Trump obstruction claim

William Barr said he was surprised that the special counsel did not reach a conclusion on whether President Donald Trump obstructed justice.

US attorney general William Barr is sworn in to give evidence before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing (Andrew Harnik/AP)
US attorney general William Barr is sworn in to give evidence before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing (Andrew Harnik/AP)

By Eric Tucker and Mary Clare Jalonick, Associated Press

US attorney general William Barr has said he was surprised that special counsel Robert Mueller and his team did not reach a conclusion on whether or not President Donald Trump obstructed justice.

Mr Barr said in evidence to the US Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday that Mr Mueller told him of his team’s plans at a March 5 meeting.

A Justice Department legal opinion says sitting presidents cannot be indicted.

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Attorney General William Barr is photographed as he sits down to give evidence (Susan Walsh/AP)

Mr Barr said Mr Mueller told him he would not have recommended indicting the president even without that opinion from the Office of Legal Counsel.

The attorney general said Mr Mueller told him that there may come a time when the Justice Department should consider revisiting that opinion but that this is not that case.

Mr Mueller has written a letter saying that Mr Barr’s summary of his Russia report created “public confusion about critical aspects of the results”.

But Mr Barr hit back at Mr Mueller’s obstruction analysis, which neither accused the president of a crime nor exonerated him. He said: “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 Mr Mueller’s team were unified in approach.

But Mr Barr sought to minimise the rift by suggesting the special counsel’s concerns were largely about process, not substance.

Democrats seized on the daylight between the two men to attack Mr Barr’s credibility and accuse him of unduly spinning Mr Mueller’s report in the President’s favour.

They also pressed him on whether he had misled Congress last month when he professed ignorance about complaints from the special counsel’s team. Mr Barr suggested he had not lied because he was in touch with Mr Mueller himself and not his team.

While Democratic senators bluntly questioned Mr Barr’s actions, Republicans, in addition to defending Mr 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.

Mr Barr has also been invited to appear on 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 on Wednesday on the specifics of Mueller’s investigation, though Mr Barr did make a robust defence 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 Dianne Feinstein, the committee’s top Democrat, about an episode recounted in Mr Mueller’s report in which Mr Trump pressed White House counsel Don McGahn to seek the removal of Mr Mueller on conflict-of-interest grounds. Mr Trump then asked Mr McGahn to deny a press report that such a directive had been given.

Mr 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.”

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