US Attorney General William Barr on Thursday defended President Donald Trump in advance of the release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russia’s role in the 2016 US election, emphasising that it found no collusion between Trump’s campaign and Moscow.
Barr, the top US law enforcement official and a Trump appointee, gave a news conference at the Justice Department as he sought to shape the narrative on a watershed day in Trump’s tumultuous presidency.
“President Trump faced an unprecedented situation. As he entered into office and sought to perform his responsibilities as president, federal agents and prosecutors were scrutinising his conduct before and after taking office and the conduct of some of his associates,” Barr said.
“At the same time, there was relentless speculation in the news media about the president’s personal culpability. Yet, as he said from the beginning, there was, in fact, no collusion,” added Barr, one of a handful of people to have seen the report.
The report’s disclosure, with portions expected to be blacked out by Barr, is certain to launch a new political fight in Congress and on the 2020 presidential campaign trail, as Trump seeks re-election in a deeply divided country.
Moments after Barr concluded his news conference, Trump posted an image of himself on Twitter surrounded by fog with the words: “No collusion. No obstruction. For the haters and the radical left Democrats – GAME OVER.”
The delay in seeing the report sparked Democratic complaints that Barr wanted to shape the public’s views during his news conference before others had a chance to draw their own conclusions.
Democrats, who are demanding the release of the full, unredacted version, have heavily criticised Barr’s handling of the rollout of the report.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Barr had “thrown out his credibility and the DOJ’s independence with his single-minded effort to protect” Trump. And Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said, “The process is poisoned before the report is even released.”
Pelosi and Schumer issued a joint statement early on Thursday calling for Mueller to appear before Congress “as soon as possible”. They said Barr’s “partisan handling” of the report has “resulted in a crisis of confidence in his independence and impartiality”.
Barr said he and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller as special counsel in May 2017, disagreed with some of Mueller’s “legal theories” about obstruction of justice and concluded that the special counsel did not have “sufficient” evidence to establish that Trump committed an obstruction of justice.
Barr added, “Apart from whether the acts were obstructive, this evidence of non-corrupt motives weighs heavily against any allegation that the president had a corrupt intent to obstruct the investigation.”
Barr said Trump’s personal lawyers “were given the opportunity to read a final version of the redacted report before it was publicly released”, a revelation expected to infuriate congressional Democrats.
“The Russian government sought to interfere in our election process but thanks to the special counsel’s thorough investigation, we now know that the Russian operatives who perpetrated these schemes did not have the cooperation of President Trump or the Trump campaign,” Barr said.
The report promises to provide new details about some of the biggest questions in the investigation, including the extent and nature of his campaign’s interactions with Russia and actions Trump may have taken to hinder the inquiry including his 2017 firing of FBI Director James Comey.
Mueller submitted the report to Barr last month. Two days later, Barr told politicians the inquiry did not establish that Trump’s 2016 campaign team engaged in a criminal conspiracy with Russia and that Mueller had not exonerated Trump of committing the crime of obstruction of justice. Barr subsequently concluded that Trump had not committed obstruction of justice.
Asked why Mueller was not invited to take part in the news conference, Barr said that the special counsel was merely “required under the regulation to provide me with a confidential report”.
“I’m here to discuss my response to that report and my decision, entirely discretionary, to make it public, since these reports are not supposed to be made public. That’s what I’m here to discuss,” Barr said.
Justice Department regulations give Barr broad authority to decide how much of the report to make public.
“That’s the bottom line. After nearly two years of investigations, thousands of subpoenas, hundreds of warrants and witness interviews, the special counsel confirmed that the Russian government sponsored efforts to illegally interfere in the 2016 presidential election but did not find that the Trump campaign or other Americans colluded in those efforts,” Barr said.
The release of the report may deepen an already bitter partisan rift between Trump’s fellow Republicans, most of whom have rallied around the president, and his Democratic critics, who will have to decide how hard to go after Trump as they prepare congressional investigations of his administration.