WASHINGTON ― Attorney General William Barr, appearing to play the role of President Donald Trump’s defender, held a bizarre news conference Thursday morning ahead of the expected release of a redacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller’s highly anticipated report.
“President Trump faced an unprecedented situation,” Barr said at the news conference held at the Justice Department. “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 some of his associates.”
He continued: “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.”
The attorney general, in his remarks Thursday, said the president’s legal counsel requested and reviewed a redacted version of Mueller’s nearly 400-page report on Russian interference in the 2016 election ahead of its release Thursday.
Following that review, Trump decided not to assert executive privilege to redact information within the report, though he would have been “well within his rights to do so,” Barr said.
“The president confirmed that, in the interests of transparency and full disclosure to the American people, he would not assert privilege over the special counsel’s report,” Barr said Thursday. “Accordingly, the public report I am releasing today contains redactions only for the four categories that I previously outlined, and no material has been redacted based on executive privilege.”
Barr said earlier this month that Trump indicated he was leaving the decision on executive privilege to the attorney general. Barr said at the time that he had “no plan” to claim executive privilege to hold back any of the Mueller report.
As he stated during congressional hearings on Capitol Hill earlier this month, the publicly released Mueller report will be redacted with regard to four areas: grand jury material, intelligence sources and methods, information that could jeopardize ongoing investigations, and material Barr believes could unfairly damage the reputations of “peripheral third parties.”
Though Barr repeatedly stated there was “no collusion,” as Trump has parroted for years, he noted Mueller’s report counted 10 “episodes” of potential obstruction of justice by the president.
Barr reiterated that both he and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein concluded there was not sufficient evidence to prove Trump committed an obstruction of justice. He said they disagreed with some of the Mueller report’s “legal theories” about obstruction.
“We did not rely solely on that in making our decision,” Barr said Thursday. “Instead, we accepted the special counsel’s legal framework for purposes of our analysis and evaluated the evidence as presented by the special counsel in reaching our conclusion.”
Barr said evidence showed Trump was “frustrated and angered” by concerns that the investigation was undermining his presidency, yet “fully cooperated” with Mueller’s investigation.
Trump’s legal counsel, in fact, prevented Mueller from interviewing the president, despite the special counsel’s repeated requests to do so.
Barr’s decision to hold a news conference, alongside Rosenstein, before the reporters asking him questions were able to read the redacted report raised concerns that the Trump-appointed Justice Department official was spinning media coverage of the report in favor of the president.
Several Democratic chairs of House committees ― including House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, Intel Chairman Adam Schiff and Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings ― issued a joint statement Wednesday calling on Barr to cancel his news conference.
Barr has already made a concerted effort to control the narrative around Mueller’s investigation. When the special counsel completed his report in March, Barr opted against making the report public. Instead, the attorney general wrote a four-page letter to Congress that he claimed summarized the principal conclusions in the report.
According to Barr, the special counsel did not find that Trump’s campaign conspired with Russia to influence the outcome of the 2016 election. Mueller declined to “make a traditional prosecutorial judgment” about whether Trump obstructed justice, Barr wrote. Instead of deferring to Congress on whether the president obstructed justice, the attorney general took it upon himself to state that Mueller’s report did not include enough evidence to establish Trump’s guilt.
Barr’s March letter prompted a series of misleading headlines about Mueller’s findings. Trump immediately declared himself exonerated by the report, even though it had not yet been made public.
Barr’s interpretation of Mueller’s report was not surprising. Before he became attorney general, Barr sent Rosenstein an unsolicited memo arguing that the special counsel had no basis for even investigating whether the president obstructed justice.
The optics of a Trump ally delivering the only publicly available summary of Mueller’s findings enraged Democrats, who have called for access to the complete report and the underlying evidence. The version of the report expected to be made public later Thursday will include redactions from Barr.
This story has been updated with more details from Barr’s news conference.