Attorney General William Barr attempted to justify clearing Donald Trump of obstruction of justice on Wednesday, continuing to defend the president and at times sounding like Trump’s own personal lawyer.
On March 24, Barr told Congress that special counsel Robert Mueller did not make a determination on whether Trump obstructed justice in the investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 U.S. elections. So Barr made the choice for Mueller, clearing Trump.
“The Special Counsel’s decision to describe the facts of his obstruction investigation without reaching any legal conclusions leaves it to the Attorney General to determine whether the conduct described in the report constitutes a crime,” he wrote in his letter to lawmakers.
Later, when the Justice Department finally released the Mueller report, it became clear that Barr was being misleading. Barr never had to make that conclusion, and Mueller didn’t do so because he believed it was not his responsibility ― ultimately, he implied, the job should be left up to Congress.
“[I]f we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state,” read the report. “Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment.”
Barr, therefore, found himself in the hot seat Wednesday when he testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee and had to justify coming to a conclusion that Mueller would not.
Barr said that to ‘remove’ Mueller would have been different from ‘firing’ Mueller.
Barr very much tried to push back on a January 2018 article in The New York Times that reported Trump ordered his then-White House counsel Don McGahn to fire Mueller. McGahn refused to do so, and Trump eventually backed off.
“There’s something very different between firing a special counsel outright ― which suggests ending the investigation ― and having a special counsel removed for conflict, which suggests that you’re going to have another special counsel,” Barr said on Wednesday.
Here is how The New York Times summed up what Trump perceived to be Mueller’s conflicts of interest:
First, he claimed that a dispute years ago over fees at Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Va., had prompted Mr. Mueller, the F.B.I. director at the time, to resign his membership. The president also said Mr. Mueller could not be impartial because he had most recently worked for the law firm that previously represented the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Finally, the president said, Mr. Mueller had been interviewed to return as the F.B.I. director the day before he was appointed special counsel in May.
By defending Trump, Barr is ignoring what the Mueller report actually said. Mueller and his team found that Trump wanted to get rid of Mueller to limit and block the investigation ― and was using the supposed conflicts of interest as a pretext:
This evidence shows that the President was not just seeking an examination of whether conflicts existed but instead was looking to use asserted conflicts as a way to terminate the Special Counsel. ...
Substantial evidence indicates that the President’s attempts to remove the Special Counsel were linked to the Special Counsel’s oversight of investigations that involved the President’s conduct — and, most immediately, to reports that the President was being investigated for potential obstruction of justice.
So yes, Trump may have had a different special counsel after Mueller. But he was clearly aiming for someone who wouldn’t investigate him quite as thoroughly.
Barr claims Trump pressured McGahn simply because he was concerned about bad press.
According to the Mueller report, days after The New York Times article, Trump told one of his aides, Rob Porter, to make McGahn write something contracting the article.
The President said that McGahn leaked to the media to make himself look good. The President then directed Porter to tell McGahn to create a record to make clear that the President never directed McGahn to fire the Special Counsel. Porter thought the matter should be handled by the White House communications office, but the President said he wanted McGahn to write a letter to the file “for our records” and wanted something beyond a press statement to demonstrate that the reporting was inaccurate. The President referred to McGahn as a “lying bastard” and said that he wanted a record from him.
McGahn never wrote anything.
Barr waved this incident away on Wednesday, saying “there is evidence the president truly felt that the Times article was inaccurate and he wanted McGahn to correct it. So we believe 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. ... And as the report indicates, it could also have been the case that he was primarily concerned about press reports and making it clear that he never outright directed the firing of Mueller.”
But the Mueller report makes clear that Trump was not just concerned with press reports, despite Barr’s attempt to once again defend the president:
If the President were focused solely on a press strategy in seeking to have McGahn refute the New York Times article, a nexus to a proceeding or to further investigative interviews would not be shown. But the President’s efforts to have McGahn write a letter “for our records” approximately ten days after the stories had come out — well past the typical time to issue a correction for a news story — indicates the President was not focused solely on a press strategy, but instead likely contemplated the ongoing investigation and any proceedings arising from it.
Trump chose Barr as attorney general, after the previous person in the job, Jeff Sessions, angered the president when he recused himself from any investigation into the 2016 election. That decision led to the appointment of Mueller. Trump reportedly believed the attorney general’s job was to protect the president from legal trouble and carry out his agenda.
Trump has found his man in Barr. Before he turned over the Mueller report to Congress or the public, Barr was out spinning its contents as favorably to Trump as possible ― including in ways that are misleading or inaccurate.