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Barr spars with Democrats over ‘snitty’ Mueller letter

Attorney General William P. Barr testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 1, and faced heated questions on his depictions of the Mueller report. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Attorney General William P. Barr denied Democrats’ accusations that he dissembled and misled the public about Robert S. Mueller III’s findings, defending his handling of the case during a contentious Senate hearing Wednesday about the special counsel investigation of President Trump.

Much of the hearing centered on revelations that Mueller complained more than a month ago about Barr’s initial public depiction of the investigation’s findings. The attorney general parried many of the Democrats’ toughest accusations and questions with avuncular answers about legal definitions and Justice Department policy, exasperating lawmakers like Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who accused Barr of “masterful hairsplitting.”

Mueller wrote a letter in late March expressing dissatisfaction to Barr that the attorney general’s four-page memo to Congress, which described the principal conclusions of Mueller’s investigation into the president’s conduct and Russia’s election interference, “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance” of the special counsel’s work.

Congressional Democrats called for the resignation of Attorney General William P. Barr on May 1. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Barr has said his memo wasn’t meant to summarize Mueller’s full report and at Wednesday’s hearing called Mueller’s letter “a bit snitty.”

Barr declines to testify before House panel, says Judiciary Committee aide

After the hearing ended, Justice Department officials notified the House Judiciary Committee that Barr would not appear at a planned Thursday hearing to discuss the Trump investigation. That session had been in doubt over objections by Barr’s aides that he would be questioned by staff lawyers for the committee.

Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec blamed the cancellation on “unprecedented and unnecessary” conditions demanded by the committee’s Democratic chairman, Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York.

Wednesday’s hearing proved how devoted Democrats are to pressing questions of Trump’s conduct and fitness for office and showed the determination of Barr and Republican lawmakers to move on from the Mueller investigation.

“I think history will judge you harshly and maybe a bit unfairly,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) told Barr, suggesting that the attorney general may have become the Trump administration’s “fall guy” for blunting the impact of Mueller’s findings.

Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) told Barr he should resign for what she called his previous misleading statements to Congress about Mueller’s work. Demands for Barr’s resignation also were made by other Democrats before, during and after Wednesday’s hearing.

“You knew you lied, and now we know,” she said, referencing testimony Barr gave in early April. At that time, he said he did not know whether Mueller disagreed with his legal conclusion that Trump should not be accused of obstruction, nor did he know what media reports were referencing when they revealed frustration among some on Mueller’s team about the limited information Barr initially revealed about their work.

“Being attorney general of the United States is a sacred trust; you have betrayed that trust,” Hirono said.

At that, Barr and the committee chairman, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), tried to protest, but Hirono fired one more shot, saying: “Give us some credit for knowing what the hell is going on here.”

Graham leaped to Barr’s defense, telling Hirono: “You slandered this man from top to bottom, so if you want more of this, you’re not going to get it.”

Repeatedly, Barr denied the accusations and insinuations that he had lied or misrepresented anything.

“I wasn’t hiding the ball,” Barr told Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), who pressed the attorney general on whether he omitted key details of Mueller’s report from his initial account of the findings.

When the hearing ended, Graham declared he would not call Mueller to testify.

“I’m not going to do any more. Enough already, it’s over. If there’s any dispute about a conversation, then he’ll come, but I’m not going to retry the case. . . . It is over,” Graham said.

Trump praised Barr’s performance. “I heard that the attorney general was really, really solid and did a great job today,” the president said in an interview with Boston Herald Radio.

Throughout the hearing, Barr tried to counter the Democrats’ fiery accusations with cool, technical answers.

“We have to stop using the criminal justice process as a political weapon,” he said, adding that even after a lengthy investigation did not find a conspiracy between the president’s aides and Russia, political rhetoric about the Trump probe would lead some in the public to think “the Mueller report had found the opposite.”

Mueller complained that Barr’s letter did not capture ‘context’ of Trump probe

The main point of contention Wednesday was Mueller’s March 27 letter and Barr’s follow-up phone call a day later. The disclosure of those interactions elevated further the sky-high tension surrounding Barr’s appearance — the first opportunity for lawmakers to question Barr directly since he released a redacted version of Mueller’s 448-page report on April 18.

In dismissing Mueller’s letter as “snitty,” Barr suggested it was written not by the special counsel but by another member of Mueller’s team. Barr said that after he received it, he called Mueller to ask, “Bob, what’s with the letter? Why don’t you just pick up the phone and call me if there’s an issue?’ ”

Read: Special counsel’s letter to the attorney general

Barr insisted that in their phone conversation, Mueller had not disputed the accuracy of the attorney general’s statements, but rather felt the public needed more information more quickly than Barr was willing to release it.

“My understanding was, his concern was not the accuracy of the statement of the findings in my letter, but that he wanted more out there to provide additional context to explain his reasoning and why he didn’t reach a decision on obstruction.”

Barr also said that Mueller’s letter followed days of negative media coverage about the report, suggesting a possible connection.

“My view of events was that there was a lot of criticism of the special counsel for the ensuing few days, and [then] I got this letter,” Barr said.

A spokesman for Mueller declined to comment.

The letter and phone call underscore the intensity of the dispute between two longtime colleagues and friends as they handled the legally and politically fraught task of investigating the president. Their private back-and-forth came days after Barr announced that the special counsel did not find a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russian officials seeking to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. In his memo to Congress, Barr also said that Mueller had not reached a conclusion about whether Trump had tried to obstruct justice, but that Barr reviewed the evidence and found it was insufficient to support such a charge.

“There is now public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation,” Mueller wrote in the March 27 letter. “This threatens to undermine a central purpose for which the Department appointed the Special Counsel: to assure full public confidence in the outcome of the investigations.”

Mueller’s report identified multiple incidents that were investigated as possible obstruction of justice, but the special counsel’s office decided that as an issue of Justice Department policy and fairness, it should not reach a conclusion about whether the president had committed a crime.

Barr has said Mueller declined the opportunity to review his four-page memo to lawmakers, which attempted to distill the essence of the special counsel’s findings.

Barr on Wednesday defended his handling of the case, saying that he is Mueller’s boss and responsible for final decisions about what to do with Mueller’s report.

Mueller is “part of the Department of Justice. His work concluded when he sent his report to the attorney general,” Barr said. “At that point, it was my baby, and I was making a decision as to whether or not to make it public.”

At several points in the questioning, Barr indicated he was surprised by decisions Mueller made and disagreed with him on important elements.

In his report, Mueller wrote that the Justice Department legal finding indicating a sitting president cannot be charged with a crime also means that a prosecutor should not state whether the president broke the law and therefore would face charges if he were not in office. Barr was skeptical of that reasoning, saying his confusion over how Mueller reached that conclusion affected Barr’s own statements about the case.

“I didn’t try to put words in his mouth,” Barr said. If Mueller did not think he could say whether the president committed a crime, then he should not have investigated that issue, Barr said. “That was the time to pull up,” he said.

Mueller’s report said it was appropriate to investigate the president “to preserve the evidence when memories were fresh and documentary materials were available.”

While Democrats focused their questions primarily on what they viewed as bad conduct by the president and by Barr, Republicans pushed Barr to examine allegations of FBI misconduct in investigating both Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016, and to look into the origins of both probes. Barr has agreed to do so.

The attorney general defended his past assertion that there had been government “spying” on the Trump campaign, but he added Wednesday that, as a former CIA lawyer, he did not view the term as negative.

He repeated a pledge to review the investigative work done on the Trump campaign to see whether ethical or legal lines were crossed.

“These are the things I need to look at, and I have to say as I said before, to the extent that there was any overreach, it was a few people in the upper echelons of the (FBI) and perhaps the department, but those people are no longer there,” Barr said.

When Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) asked whether it was possible that a dossier of allegations against then-candidate Trump compiled in 2016 by a former British intelligence officer could have been partly a Russian disinformation campaign, Barr said he could not rule that out.

“That is one of the areas that I’m reviewing, and I’m concerned about it, and I don’t think it’s entirely speculative,” Barr said.

Democrats said Barr misled lawmakers when he was asked at a congressional hearing in early April whether he knew of complaints from members of Mueller’s team that more of their report should be made public immediately.

“No, I don’t,” Barr testified April 9. “I suspect that they probably wanted more put out, but in my view, I was not interested in putting out summaries or trying to summarize.”

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) brought up that exchange and suggested Barr’s earlier answer was not true.

Barr defended himself, saying he did not know about the concerns of individuals on Mueller’s team.

“I don’t know what that refers to at all. I talk directly to Bob Mueller, not members of his team,” Barr said.

“Mr. Barr,” Leahy replied, “I feel your answer was purposely misleading, and I think others do, too.”

John Wagner, Rachael Bade and Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.