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Barr under fire for news conference that was a boon for Trump, and often featured one of his preferred terms

Attorney General William P. Barr’s assessment of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report used strikingly similar language to President Trump’s remarks. (Video: Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)

Flanked by two deputies, Attorney General William P. Barr stepped to a microphone on the Justice Department’s seventh floor Thursday and spoke in the language of the president who appointed him to the job.

Previewing the imminent release of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report, the top U.S. law enforcement official declared five times that investigators had found no “collusion” between the Trump campaign and Russia. Once, he even seemed to chide reporters for their “relentless speculation” about President Trump’s possible personal wrongdoing — while declaring the president correct in his pushback.

“As he said from the beginning,” Barr declared, “there was in fact no collusion.”

Mueller report lays out obstruction evidence against the president

The news conference was a boon for the president, reinforcing — before the public had read Mueller’s actual report — the letter Barr sent to Congress last month announcing that Mueller had not found a conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign, and had declined to reach a conclusion on whether Trump had obstructed justice. The president reacted with glee on Twitter and privately told advisers that former attorney general Jeff Sessions, with whom he famously sparred, would not have done so well, according to White House aides who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions.

But the roughly half-hour, televised event also cemented the view among wary Democrats and some in the legal community that Barr was more politically motivated and protective of Trump than they had realized. In their view, his comments were inaccurate, and they at least seemed to belie the detailed, 448-page account of Mueller’s work. Equally troubling: Barr embraced a preferred word of the president — “collusion” — when the special counsel wrote in his report the term was “not a specific offense or theory of liability found in the United States Code, nor is it a term of art in federal criminal law.”

“I think it’s pretty clear, he’s just an extremely partisan attorney general,” said Matthew Miller, who was a Justice Department spokesman in the Obama administration. “I can’t think of any comparison in modern history to what he’s done in the past three-and-a-half weeks.”

Barr disputed at the news conference the idea that he was protecting the president, and said he had “no objection” to Mueller himself testifying before Congress to air his side of things.

Asked about the concern — including from a federal judge — that he was fostering suspicion in his handling of Mueller’s work, he shot back at a reporter: “I’m not sure what your basis is for saying that I am being generous to the president.” When a reporter later asked about the “spinning” of Mueller’s work, Barr simply declared “no” and walked off the stage.

Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said Barr “thought it was important to hold a press conference to address the questions that he knew were on everyone’s minds about process, which included issues of executive privilege, interactions with the White House and the redaction process.”

She added: “The fact that the attorney general released a minimally redacted report after the press conference reflects his commitment to transparency and being as forthright as possible.”

In addition to providing a broad overview of the report, Barr revealed that he had allowed White House lawyers and Trump’s private attorneys to review the redacted document in advance — out of executive privilege and other concerns. Barr said that, after the White House counsel review, Trump elected not to exert executive privilege, and his personal lawyers “were not permitted to make, and did not request, any redactions.”

That happened earlier this week, and a senior White House aide said that Trump’s lawyers briefed the president on its findings more than a day before it came out.

House Democrats had already been incensed when Barr scheduled the news conference, and after he spoke, they intensified their attacks. A senior Democratic aide said that leadership offices lodged a formal complaint with Barr before his news conference and plan to target his credibility in coming days.

Newly minted presidential candidate Rep. Eric Swalwell
(D-Calif.) called for him to resign, citing in a statement what he called Barr’s “misconduct regarding the full report of Special Counsel.”

“You can be the President’s defense attorney or America’s Attorney General, but you can’t be both,” he said.

Barr also revealed for the first time that there was disagreement between the Justice Department and the special counsel’s office on whether the president obstructed justice, saying he and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein disputed some of Mueller’s “legal theories.” Barr said he and his deputy stepped in to declare there was not a prosecutable obstruction case against Trump only when Mueller would not say one way or the other.

“The very prosecutorial function and all our powers as prosecutors, including the power to convene grand juries and compulsory process that’s involved there is for one purpose and one purpose only. It’s to determine, yes or no, was alleged conduct criminal or not criminal,” Barr said. “Because the special counsel did not make that decision, we felt the department had to.”

Barr noted that the regulations do not call for him to release Mueller’s report, and he did so with “limited” redactions. The report indeed details an array of episodes — some of them new, many of them already reported — of the president pressing to thwart the investigation, or of those on his campaign making contact with Russians or affiliates.

In one of the most striking episodes, Mueller’s team alleged that Trump called then-White House counsel Donald McGahn at home in June 2017 and directed him to have the attorney general remove Mueller, citing conflicts of interest.

McGahn did not do so, fearing mass resignations at the Justice Department as happened when President Richard M. Nixon ordered the firing of a special prosecutor, the report alleged.

Barr’s critics have long alleged there were signs that he was more worried about protecting Trump than carrying out the Justice Department’s mission. Before he got the job, he sent a memo to the Justice Department raising questions about what he saw as Mueller’s theory of obstruction. And in recent weeks, he has suggested that intelligence agents conducted “spying” on the Trump campaign — a word his defenders say he did not mean to carry a negative connotation, though it closely reflects the president’s attacks on Mueller’s inquiry.

Ted Boutrous, a Gibson Dunn legal partner who frequently argues in front of the Supreme Court, said the news conference “really distorted the process and risks undermining public confidence in the special counsel’s investigation.” Boutrous is representing the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in a lawsuit seeking the release of grand jury material from the Muellerprobe.

Barr himself noted at a recent congressional hearing that offering a summary of Mueller’s work “not only runs the risk of being under-inclusive or over-inclusive but also would trigger a lot of discussion and analysis that really should have weighed everything coming out at once.” His defenders, though, disputed the accusation that he was trying to spin the report, and insisted his taking questions was a move that offered more transparency than normal.

“He knows the report’s going to be out there,” said George J. Terwilliger III, a white-collar defense lawyer who served as Barr’s deputy attorney general in the George H.W. Bush administration. “The fact that he saw fit to talk to the press about the report and the process and the reasons for the steps that he took seem to me to be being quite open, rather than something nefarious.”

Ian Prior, a former Justice Department spokesman in the Trump administration who is now a vice president at Mercury Public Affairs, said the criticism of Barr was “completely unfounded” and asserted that the attorney general had “gone far beyond what is required in the regulations to provide transparency to the public and Congress.”

“Moreover, at his press conference, he accurately described the Mueller report, concisely explained his reasons for concluding that there was no obstruction of justice and was forthright in responding to reporters’ questions,” Prior said.

Even before the news conference, Barr had seemed to win Trump’s adulation. The president recently told Republican lawmakers at a trade meeting that Barr was a “beauty” and that it was nice that he had a “real attorney general,” according to people familiar with the meeting. For weeks, Trump lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani has praised Barr and said the president had “complete faith” in him.

Several White House officials said Barr’s performance would probably insulate the attorney general from any Trump opprobrium over the next few days, as Democrats have more time to digest Mueller’s work and hone their attacks. Some of his defenders, too, turned their attention to what they see as the next chapter of the story: investigating the investigators.

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a Trump ally and vocal critic of the FBI’s Russia investigation, said most of his constituents have a single question: “Why did this happen in the first place?”

Devlin Barrett and Chelsea Janes contributed to this report.