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Barr faces political storm over Mueller report
Attorney General William Barr is at the center of a political storm following the release of his conclusions on the Mueller report.
Democrats are vowing to call him before Congress to testify, and they want to see all the materials that led to his decision, made along with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, saying there were no grounds for an obstruction of justice charge against President Trump.
Unlike special counsel Robert Mueller, a former FBI director appointed by presidents in both parties and confirmed by broad bipartisan majorities to his previous posts, Barr was picked by Trump to lead the Justice Department and is viewed as a more partisan figure.
At the same time, he is a veteran of Washington who impressed a number of observers with his handling of questions during his Senate confirmation hearing in January. This is also his second stint as attorney general, having served under President George H.W. Bush.
Barr wrote in his letter to Congress Sunday summarizing Mueller's conclusions that the special counsel had decided not to say whether Trump had committed obstruction of justice. As attorney general, he wrote, it's up to him "to determine whether the conduct described in the report constitutes a crime."
The attorney general quoted directly from Mueller's report in stating that it "does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him."
Barr said that he and Rosenstein had reviewed the evidence laid out by the special counsel and found that it was "not sufficient" to bring forth such a charge. He added that the report "identifies no actions that, in our judgment" that showed Trump acted with "corrupt intent."
Republicans and Democrats have already said they want Barr to testify on the Mueller report and its findings. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he wants the nation's top cop to appear before his panel, and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) has said the same.
Graham told reporters later Monday that Barr told him he was willing to appear before the Senate committee.
House Democrats, who are conducting several investigations into the president, his family and his businesses, were quick to condemn Barr for his decision to not pursue the obstruction charge.
"It is unacceptable that, after Special Counsel Mueller spent 22 months meticulously uncovering this evidence, Attorney General Barr made a decision not to charge the President in under 48 hours," Nadler said in a joint statement Sunday issued with House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.).
Other Democrats have also criticized the move.
"This is the attorney general of the United States, in my view, attempting to shape the narrative on the obstruction of justice claim because he gives a report," Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), a member of the House Judiciary Committee, said Monday on CNN.
He also expressed concerns over Barr having made the call on obstruction, instead of Mueller.
"We don't want this determination being made by the attorney general, who is appointed by this president and some could argue was appointed specifically because of his view on the expansive power of the executive and the likelihood that a president can't ever commit obstruction of justice, which we know is not true," Cicilline said.
Republicans aren't on the same page. Graham said Monday he believes Barr was the right person to make the call on the charge, and that it wasn't Congress's duty to press such charges.
"We're political people, right? We're not prosecutors," Graham said at a press conference. "There's a good reason you wouldn't want a bunch of politicians prosecuting other politicians."
"The judiciary's goal is to provide oversight, to watch those who watch us," he added. "I'm not into the prosecuting business."
Seth Waxman, a former federal prosecutor, said he was "a little bit disappointed" that Barr and Rosenstein had made the decision, instead of Mueller, who spent almost two years leading the investigation.
"He's the person who's the best positioned to know and render an opinion on whether the evidence constituted obstruction of justice," Waxman said. "That happens all the time. That's what prosecutors get paid to do, to make those kinds of calls."
And former federal prosecutor Gene Rossi told Hill.TV's "Rising" on Monday that the Mueller findings were a "jump ball," and that Barr shouldn't have been the one to make the call.
"[Barr] already determined that the possession arrow should go in favor of Donald Trump," Rossi said. "In June of 2018, he already said, 'There's no obstruction.' So I have to criticize the attorney general - for whom I was very complimentary - that was a bad decision, and it taints this letter."
Kendall Coffey, a former assistant U.S. attorney, said that if Mueller didn't come to a determination, Barr has the authority as attorney general to do so.
He said he believed that Mueller's decision to punt on the matter could mean the special counsel thought the evidence wasn't clear-cut in showing that the president committed a crime.
"It may be that there was a disagreement among his team and he thought it was too close to call and that would be appropriate to put this forward to an attorney general who was not recused" from the investigation, Coffey said.
There's also a legal question over whether a president can be charged with obstruction of justice.
Mueller was appointed partially in response to Trump's firing of former FBI Director James Comey, and Trump told NBC News shortly after the dismissal that it had to do with the Russia investigation. Some experts argue that the Constitution gives the president the power to fire officials like Comey.
Furthermore, Justice Department guidance states that a sitting president cannot be indicted. Barr said that did not play a role in his decision.
Whether it was Barr's responsibility to make the decision, his choice to not pursue a charge has thrust him into lawmakers' crosshairs.
If he complies with the requests to testify, Barr's appearances before congressional committees will give lawmakers another chance to scrutinize his actions, and his motivations.
During his confirmation hearing in January, Barr was grilled over how he would handle the forthcoming Mueller report. He said he would release as much of it as he could under Justice Department rules, but shied away from promising to make all of it publicly available.
He also faced scrutiny over an unsolicited memo he wrote and submitted to the Justice Department in 2018, when he argued that the Mueller obstruction of justice probe could do "lasting damage" to the presidency.
"Mueller should not be able to demand that the President submit to an interrogation about alleged obstruction," Barr wrote. "If embraced by the Department, this theory would have potentially disastrous implications, not just for the Presidency, but for the Executive branch as a whole and the Department in particular."
Barr defended his writing of the memo during the hearing, telling lawmakers that it pertained to one specific statute and was "speculation" based on publicly available information.
His testimony, in hindsight, offered a preview of what he would come to write in his four-page letter summarizing Mueller's findings. In it, Barr wrote that the special counsel's evidence did not show that Trump had acted with "corrupt intent."
During his January hearing, Barr offered details on what he thought constituted acting "corruptly."
"It's an adverb and it's not meant to mean with a state of mind. It's actually meant the way in which the influence or obstruction is committed," Barr said.
"It meant to influence in a way that changes something that's good and fit to something that's bad and unfit, namely the corruption of evidence or the corruption of a decisionmaker," he added. "That's what the word corruptly means, because once you dissociate it from that ... [it's] very hard to discern what it means. It means bad. What does bad mean?"
Barr also used his nomination hearing to try and convince lawmakers that he would act independently from Trump, prioritizing law and order over any political motivations or pressure from the White House.
"I feel I'm in a position in life where I can do the right thing and not really care about the consequences, in the sense that I can truly be independent," he testified.
The then-nominee also defended Mueller during the hearing, calling him a "good friend" and "straight shooter." The two men worked together at the Justice Department, and Mueller attended the weddings of Barr's children.
By the time Barr testified before lawmakers, Trump had spent months attacking the special counsel. But on Monday, after the summary of Mueller's findings was released, the president appeared to change his tune.
Asked by reporters at the White House if he thought Mueller had acted honorably, Trump
replied, "Yes, he did."