It was Attorney General William Barr’s testimony, but Robert Mueller’s words stole the show.
In his appearance Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Barr was on the defensive after a letter from Mueller surfaced criticizing how the attorney general handled the public release of the special counsel’s core findings.
The letter laid bare some of the internal tensions between the attorney general and the special counsel as Barr defended his rollout of the Russia report — and President Donald Trump — while taking some subtle shots at his old friend Mueller.
Some key takeaways from Mueller’s letter and Barr’s testimony:
Mueller wanted more information released at first
Mueller wanted the executive summaries from his report publicly released immediately after he submitted his report in March. But Barr went his own way.
Days after receiving the 448-page report, Barr released his own four-page letter laying out the report’s principal conclusions. The letter said that Mueller didn’t establish a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia and that the special counsel didn’t make a formal decision on whether Trump obstructed justice.
Mueller: Barr did more harm than good by not releasing more information
In his March 27 letter to Barr, Mueller wrote, “The summary letter the Department sent to Congress and released to the public late in the afternoon of March 24 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 added. In the letter, first reported by The Washington Post, Mueller urged Barr to release redacted versions of the summaries at that time, which Barr did not do.
They ultimately became public with the release of the redacted report last month. Republicans cited that fact in dismissing the matter as now moot. But Democrats said the delay allowed Trump to use Barr’s letter to bake in a public narrative about the report’s findings before it was released.
Following up on the ‘snitty’ letter
Barr testified that he called Mueller after receiving his complaints and Mueller told him he hadn’t “misrepresented” the report. Instead, Barr said Mueller told him he was upset that the press coverage was reading too much into the letter.
Barr said Mueller pressed him to release the summaries, but he rejected that advice because he didn’t want to release the report “piecemeal.”
Bristling under questioning from Senate Democrats, Barr said: “It was my decision how and when to make it public. Not Bob Mueller’s.”
Barr described Mueller’s letter as a “bit snitty,” and also took a subtle shot at the special counsel, saying he slowed down its public release.
He said he had asked Mueller’s team to identify grand jury information that would need to be redacted, but when he received the report, they hadn’t done it. He said it then took weeks to comb through the report to black out protected information.
Past comments to Congress draw scrutiny
A couple weeks after receiving Mueller’s complaints, Barr was asked at a House hearing about reports that members of the special counsel’s team were “frustrated at some level with the limited information included” in the letter Barr sent to Congress detailing Mueller’s principal conclusions.
Rep. Charlie Crist, D-Fla., asked Barr, “Do you know what they are referencing with that?”
Barr responded, “No, I don’t.”
On Wednesday, Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee challenged Barr to explain how he could say that after receiving Mueller’s letter.
Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii went further, saying Barr had lied.
But Barr defended himself by saying the question was imprecise. Crist’s question asked him about unidentified members of Mueller’s team, while he spoke with Mueller directly, he said.
“I don’t know what that refers to at all,” Barr said of the question.
Barr says he didn’t exonerate Trump
That’s not what the Justice Department does, Barr said.
“I didn’t exonerate. I said that we didn’t believe that there was sufficient evidence to establish an obstruction offense,” Barr said.
Under questioning, Barr said he didn’t believe that Trump’s actions related to the Russia probe broke the law. He said Trump was well within his authority to fire FBI Director James Comey or to direct his White House counsel to have Mueller removed as special counsel.
But he declined to say whether he thought it was OK for a president to direct people around him to lie.
“I’m not in the business of determining when lies are told to the American people. I’m in the business of determining whether a crime has been committed,” Barr said.
Barr defends Trump with his view of the presidency
The powers of the presidency are so vast that Trump could shut down any investigation into him if he believed he was falsely accused.
That’s what Barr told the committee.
In making his decision that Trump didn’t obstruct justice by trying to curtail the Russia probe, Barr said he focused on how the president didn’t commit an underlying crime with Russia and how “we now know that he was being falsely accused.”
“The president doesn’t have to sit there constitutionally and allow it to run its course,” Barr said.
He also expressed sympathy for Trump.
“Two years of his administration have now been dominated by allegations that have proven false. To listen to some of the rhetoric you would think the Mueller report had found the opposite,” Barr said.