Trump's attorney general sticks up for the president | News Coverage from USA

Trump’s attorney general sticks up for the president

WASHINGTON — For the first two years of the Trump administration, the Justice Department found itself locked in war to protect Russia special counsel Robert Mueller from the president himself. Now, the siege has turned to an unusual internal struggle between the new attorney general and the special counsel. 

The protector has become the rival.

In just under three months on the job, Attorney General William Barr has charted a course that has put him in conflict with the special counsel whose investigation delivered a scathing account of President Donald Trump’s conduct in office that stopped short of accusing him of a crime.

One of Barr’s first acts supervising that probe was to step in and clear the president of criminal obstruction when Mueller wouldn’t. Barr dismissed a letter from the special counsel objecting to his handling of the report as “snitty.” And in hours of sworn testimony, he offered lawmakers an account of the president’s conduct far more charitable to Trump than the one Mueller’s investigators detailed, sometimes offering up a defense of the president at odds with the investigation’s findings. 

Barr’s testimony this week before the Senate Judiciary Committee – his first public remarks since he disclosed much of Mueller’s report last month – offered the clearest view yet of the attorney general’s differences with a special counsel he frequently describes as a personal friend, whose investigation altered the course of Trump’s presidency.

His performance earned nothing but plaudits from the president, who had complained that his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, did too little to protect him. Trump described Barr’s performance during his testimony as “fantastic.” 

Congressional Democrats and some former Justice Department lawyers came away with a view of an attorney general too willing to defend the president. 

“Every misrepresentation, every semantic trick goes to the benefit of the president,” former federal prosecutor Patrick Cotter said of the attorney general.

“It can only lead to the conclusion that consciously or subconsciously, somehow he’s decided that his role is to do everything he can to put forth the Trump position as to how the Mueller report should be interpreted,” Cotter said. “I don’t think that’s the role of the attorney general.”

The apparent split between Barr and the special counsel whose work he supervised solidified Democrats’ determination to hear from Mueller directly, a view that was cemented still further when Barr made good on his threat to skip a hearing before a House panel because he objected to being questioned by staff members. 

As Senate and House Democrats have turned up the heat in recent days – from their demands for access to a complete version of Mueller’s report to his actions that have put him starkly at odds with the special counsel – Barr has only become more resolute.

Asked whether he was still comfortable with his disputed decision to clear Trump of obstruction, the attorney general did not hesitate.

“Absolutely,” he told senators this week.

More: Mueller: Barr’s summary of report did not capture ‘context, nature, and substance’ of Russia probe

Hearing: ‘We’re out of it.’ Attorney General Barr defends release, conclusions of special counsel’s Russia report

Read the report: Read special counsel Robert Mueller’s report into President Trump, Russian interference

Don McGahn and Obstruction

There was perhaps no more critical witness in Mueller’s obstruction of justice examination than former White House Counsel Don McGahn, who offered prosecutors an unequaled view into Trump’s conduct. 

McGahn told investigators that Trump instructed him twice in June 2017 to have Mueller dismissed, a move that would have effectively shut down the investigation. The order so alarmed the White House counsel that he packed up his office, threatened to resign and confided in Trump’s then-chief of staff Reince Priebus, that the president had directed him to do “crazy s—.”

After Trump’s directive appeared in news reports, according to Mueller’s review, the president asked other officials to direct McGahn to “dispute the story and create a record stating he had not been ordered to have the special counsel removed.” McGahn declined to act, telling the special counsel that the media accounts of Trump’s dismissal order were indeed “accurate.”  

Referring in part to Trump’s directives involving McGahn, the special counsel found that “the timing and circumstances of the president’s actions support the conclusion” that Trump sought to limit the investigation.

Barr, in his Senate testimony Wednesday, cast those exchanges in a more generous light. The attorney general suggested that Trump may have truly believed the media accounts to be inaccurate and sought correct them. It was also possible, Barr said, that the president – had he given such an order – never intended that it would end the investigation because Mueller’s removal could have triggered the appointment of a new special counsel. Barr’s interpretation appeared to be at odds with Mueller’s conclusions.

“There’s something very different between firing a special counsel outright, which suggests ending the investigation, and having a special counsel removed… which suggests that you’re going to have another special counsel,” Barr told lawmakers.

That ambiguity, he said, meant the government couldn’t prove Trump committed a crime. “So we believe that it would be impossible for the government to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that the president understood that he was instructing McGahn to say something false because it wasn’t necessarily false.”

But Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., challenged the attorney general’s explanation, asserting that Trump had effectively pressured McGahn to “lie.” 

“You still have a situation where a president essentially tries to change the lawyer’s account in order to prevent further criticism of himself,” Feinstein said.

“Well, that’s not a crime,” Barr responded.

Mueller’s letter

The most explicit break between Barr and Mueller emerged Wednesday with the disclosure of a strongly-worded March 27 letter in which the special counsel challenged the attorney general’s initial characterization of the principal findings of the Russia investigation. 

The letter arrived at the Justice Department just three days after Barr disclosed the special counsel’s conclusions in a summary letter clearing Trump of obstruction, a conclusion Trump would quickly seize on to claim “total exoneration.” For several weeks, Barr’s account was the only information available to the public about the outcome of an investigation that had consumed Washington for nearly two years. 

Mueller’s letter, the first clear view into the special counsel’s thinking since he was appointed two years ago, went on to claim that Barr’s summary “did not fully capture the context, nature and substance of this office’s work and conclusions.”

“There is now public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation,” Mueller wrote, adding that the special counsel first communicated that concern March 25, the day after the attorney general issued the four-page report on the special counsel’s principal conclusions. “This threatens to undermine a central purpose for which the (Justice Department) appointed the special counsel.”

While Barr’s summary did disclose Mueller’s base-line findings, there was no mention of the damning and detailed evidence gathered in Mueller’s obstruction examination. At the time, Justice officials even declined to provide a page-count for the 448-page report.  

Barr told lawmakers the decision of what to release and when was his to make. “At that point, it was my baby and I was making a decision as to whether or not to make it public,” Barr told lawmakers, adding that he ultimately “overrode” Justice regulations by making the bulk of the report public when the redacted version was released April 18.

He said Mueller’s letter complaining about the process was “a bit snitty,” but said “I think it was probably written by one of his staff people.”

The surprise disclosure of Mueller’s letter drew additional scrutiny from Democrats in Congress, while Republicans and other allies of the attorney general have largely dismissed it as a part of the deliberative process in an extraordinary criminal investigation.

“This is so much to do about nothing,” said Mark Corallo, who briefly served as a spokesman for Trump’s personal legal team and was a witness in the Mueller inquiry. “I’ll defend Bob Mueller to the end. But this all about one thing: Democrats are projecting their anger on Bill Barr, because Bob Mueller did not come back with criminal charges against the president. 

“Sure, the president has a tendency to lie, and the people around him have a tendency to lie,” he said. “But Bill Barr is looking at the law. And he did what he said he would do: he put out the report for everyone to see. This is over. Period.”

But Barr told lawmakers other parts of his own work on the Russia investigation are not concluded. He testified Wednesday that he was conducting his own review of the origins of the investigation and whether it involved unauthorized surveillance, something he described as “spying.” The acknowledgement of Barr’s review advances a long-held assertion by many Republicans who believe that the entire Russia investigation was illegitimate – another point of conflict with Mueller.  

The president’s intent  

Included in Mueller’s detailed account of the president questionable conduct, from his abrupt dismissal of FBI Director James Comey to his haranguing of Sessions to renounce his recusal from the Russia inquiry and curtail the inquiry, is a blunt assessment of the president’s intent.

“Substantial evidence indicates that the president’s effort to have Sessions limit the scope of the special counsel’s investigation to future election interference was intended to prevent further investigative scrutiny of the president’s and his campaign’s conduct,” Mueller concluded.

The special counsel’s report further contended that Trump “knew” during the course of the inquiry that the investigation had broadened to “include his own conduct and whether he had obstructed justice.”

Mueller’s report didn’t find that Trump was trying to cover up a crime, but, after taking testimony from his top aides, it found “a range of other possible personal motives” for his efforts to block the investigation. “These include concerns that continued investigation would call into question the legitimacy of his election and potential uncertainty about whether certain events – such as advance notice of WikiLeaks’ release of hacked information (from the accounts of Clinton campaign officials) –could be seen as criminal activity by the president, his campaign, or his family.”

Mueller’s detailed findings, including his assessment of Trump’s intent, had not been made public before Barr offered up his own more deferential explanation for Trump’s conduct, describing the president as effectively under siege by federal investigators.

“In assessing the president’s action discussed in the report, it is important to bear in mind the context,” Barr told reporters at a Justice Department briefing hours before the Mueller document was released. “As he entered into office and sought to perform his responsibilities as president, federal agents and prosecutors were scrutinizing his conduct before and after taking office and the conduct of his associates.

“At the same time, there was relentless speculation in the news media about the president’s personal culpability,” Barr went on. “Yet, as he said from the beginning, there was in fact no collusion.”

Barr’s defense concluded with a pointed jab at the very legitimacy of the investigation, asserting that the president was “frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents and fueled by illegal leaks.”

At the center of the storm  

When he accepted Trump nomination late last year, Barr knew that he was stepping into a firestorm. But it’s not clear that he anticipated the intensity of the political fury that has engulfed him and put him at odds with an old friend–Mueller. 

Congressional Democrats have demanded his resignation and threatened to hold him in contempt. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., went further Thursday and accused Barr of lying to Congress when testified earlier in April that he was “unaware” that Mueller’s team had objected to his handling of the special counsel’s report. The Justice Department called the claim “baseless.”

George Terwilliger, a longtime friend of Barr’s, pushed back against criticisms that Barr has become Trump’s advocate. Barr’s actions so far show who he is: a “constitutionalist in the purest sense of the word,” said Terwilliger, who’s known Barr for 30 years and was his deputy the first time Barr served as attorney general. 

“What he defends is the constitutional authority that is afforded to the executive branch of the office of the president. It doesn’t make a difference who the president is. It’s his constitutional views that drive his position on those issues,” he said.

Mary McCord, a former federal prosecutor, said it would be “really unfortunate” to focus too much on disagreements between Barr and Mueller.

“That’s just another distraction from what should be significant about the Mueller report,” McCord said. “One is that Russia attempted mightily to interfere with our elections and did interfere and hasn’t stopped  trying to interfere and will do it again. Are we, as a country, working to not be susceptible to that?”

Democrats, however, are not ready to relent in their pursuit of Barr, who they increasingly portray as Trump’s loyal defender – something the president has openly desired in a attorney general.

“Mr. Barr… you are no different from Rudy Giuliani or Kellyanne Conaway or any of the other people who sacrifice their once decent reputation for the grifter and liar who sits in the Oval Office,” Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii told the attorney general in a pointed rebuke earlier this week, referring to Trump’s personal attorney and a White House counselor.

“At your confirmation hearing, you told Sen. Feinstein that, ‘The job of attorney general is not the same as representing’ the president. So you know the difference, but you have chosen to be the president’s lawyer and sided with him over the interest of the American people.”

For now, however, Trump appears to have found the attorney general that he has longed for following his ugly break with Sessions.

The day after Barr’s testimony, Trump took to his favorite mode of communication and tweeted a link to the headline of a Thursday Wall Street Journal headline on a column assessing Barr’s performance: “A real attorney general.” 

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