US Attorney General Barr defends actions after Mueller complaint

Senate Democrats grill Barr on his handling of Mueller report amid revelations that Mueller expressed frustration to AG.

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    Washington, DC - US Attorney General William Barr on Wednesday defended his handling of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Russia report after it was revealed that Mueller sent a letter to the top Justice Department official expressing frustration over how his team's findings were being portrayed.

    According to a letter, dated March 27, Mueller said Barr's four-page summary of the report sent to Congress on March 24 "did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance" of the special counsel's investigation.

    "There is now public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation. 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 wrote

    In his first public appearance since releasing the redacted 448-page report, Barr told senators on Wednesday that he had a 15-minute phone call with Mueller after receiving the letter.

    "I called Bob, and said, 'What's the issue here?' and I asked him if he was suggesting that the March 24 letter was inaccurate and he said 'No', but that the press reporting had been inaccurate and that the press was reading too much into it," Barr told the Senate panel.

    "I asked him specifically what his concern was and he said that his concern focused on his explanation on why he did not reach a conclusion on obstruction and he wanted more put out on that issue," Barr said. "He argued for putting out summaries of each volume, the executive summaries that had been put together by his office, and if not that, then other material that focused on the issue of why he didn't reach the obstruction question. But he was very clear with me that he was not suggesting that we had misrepresented his report."

    Barr had previously told Congress he did not know whether Mueller had concurred or disagreed with Barr's summary of the investigation results.

    US Attorney General William Barr testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee [Mandel Ngan/AFP]

    The redacted version of the report, released last month, said that Mueller's probe did not establish the Trump campaign conspired with Russian operatives. The investigation did, however, examine "multiple acts by the president that were capable of exerting undue influence over law enforcement investigations".

    Mueller did not conclude that President Donald Trump committed obstruction of justice, but did not exonerate him either. Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein subsequently concluded that Trump, who has repeatedly called the Mueller probe a "witch-hunt", did not break the law.

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    The emergence of Mueller's letter, which was first reported by the Washington Post, has prompted some Democrat politicians to call for Barr's resignation. 

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    "It's clear now, egregiously, William Barr not only lied to the American people he apparently lied to the Congress," Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, told reporters before Wednesday's hearing.

    "We will know at the end of the day what the remedy should be but clearly he has gravely lost credibility. I thought he was unfit when he was appointed, I opposed him and now, clearly the Department of Justice needs new leadership," Blumenthal said.

    Barr's handling of the Mueller report has added to tension between Democrats and the Trump administration which has refused demands by House committees for access to documents and witnesses.

    A deadline for the Justice Department to provide politicians with an unredacted copy of Mueller's report and underlying evidence expired on Wednesday. A Democratic aide told Reuters News Agency that the department did not comply with the subpoena.

    It is unclear what steps will next be taken by the House panel, but it is likely the issue will end up in the courts.

    Will Barr testify before House panel?

    Meanwhile, the Democratic-led House Judiciary Committee voted along party lines on Wednesday to allow committee lawyers to question Barr during an extra hour of proceedings on Thursday. The questioning would come in addition to a traditional hearing that provides each Representative on the panel with five minutes of questions and comments. 

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    A Justice Department spokesperson has said Barr would not appear under those ground rules and would submit only to questions from members of Congress.

    "If he doesn't testify, I expect that we will issue a subpoena to compel his appearance before the committee," Representative David Cicilline, a Democrat, told Al Jazeera.

    "And if he doesn't produce the un-redacted copy of the report, obviously that would be the decision of the chairman, but I would hope that we would initiate some litigation to compel its production," Cicilline said.

    "Congress has the power to go to court to seek contempt citations," Democratic Representative Jamie Raskin told Al Jazeera. "Congress has its own power of inherent contempt, which means we can hold people in contempt of Congress without going to court. So, there are a lot of options open to us."

    Jerrold Nadler, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said in a statement that "Attorney General Barr publicly committed to being transparent regarding the Special Counsel's investigation. He should welcome the opportunity to speak candidly and at length before the House Judiciary Committee and the American people."

    Barr had offered to allow a limited number of members of Congress, specific leadership and committee chairs, to view a less redacted version of the Mueller report in the offices of the Department of Justice. Democrats had rejected the offer as inadequate but Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell accepted. 

    "I am going to go down and take a look at the Mueller report this afternoon," McConnell told reporters on Tuesday as Congress returned to work after a two-week recess.

    "Having come back from a couple of weeks at home, it's interesting that I didn't get a single question about the Mueller report. Most Americans think it's over and it's time to move on," McConnell said.

    "It's pretty obvious the administration's view is, they have finished this. No collusion. And the president has indicated he thinks a do-over is not something he is interested in cooperating in. So, my assumption is all of these issues are going to end up into court," he said.

    Democrats in the Senate, however, made it clear they intend to continue to pursue access to the full report and will seek the testimony of Mueller himself, among others, in coming weeks.

    Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said on Tuesday that Senate Democrats intend to push legislation imposing additional sanctions on President Vladimir Putin and other Russians for the 2016 cyberattacks on the US election which were detailed by Mueller.

    In addition, Democrats will seek a closed-door briefing from top US military and cybersecurity officials on the cyberthreat from Russia in the upcoming 2020 presidential election.

    "We cannot just sit there and twiddle our thumbs while Russia aims to interfere with our elections once again. This is not how a democracy must work," Schumer told reporters.

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News