WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - Attorney-General William Barr on Wednesday (May 1) fended off Democratic criticism of his decision to clear US President Donald Trump of criminal obstruction of justice in the Russia inquiry and faulted Special Counsel Robert Mueller for not reaching a conclusion of his own on the issue.
In his first congressional testimony since releasing a redacted version of the report on April 18, Barr also dismissed Mueller's complaints that he initially disclosed the special counsel's conclusions on March 24 in an incomplete way that caused public confusion about critical aspects of the inquiry.
Illustrating tensions between the two men, Barr referred to as "a bit snitty" a March 27 letter from Mueller in which the special counsel urged him to release broader summaries of the findings to provide a fuller account - a step Barr rejected.
Trump seized on Barr's March 24 letter to declare that he had been fully exonerated.
Barr, the top US law enforcement official and a Trump appointee, tangled with Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee during roughly four hours of testimony at a sometimes testy hearing, with several Democrats calling for his resignation after the attorney-general stoutly defended Trump.
Democrats have accused Barr of trying to protect the Republican president, who is seeking re-election next year. They pressed Barr on why he decided two days after receiving the 448-page document from Mueller in March to conclude that Trump had not unlawfully sought to obstruct the 22-month investigation.
"I don't think the government had a prosecutable case," said Barr, the first Trump administration official to testify about the contents of Mueller's report.
The report detailed extensive contacts between Trump's 2016 presidential campaign and Moscow and the campaign's expectation that it would benefit from Russia's actions, which included hacking and propaganda to boost Trump and harm Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. The report also detailed a series of actions Trump took to try to impede the investigation.
Mueller, a former FBI director, concluded there was insufficient evidence to show a criminal conspiracy. Mueller opted not to make a conclusion on whether Trump committed obstruction of justice, but pointedly did not exonerate him.
Barr has said he and Rod Rosenstein, the Justice Department's No. 2 official, then determined based on Mueller's findings there was insufficient evidence to establish that Trump committed criminal obstruction.
Barr often appeared to excuse or rationalise Trump's conduct, asserting that the president's motives fell short of trying to derail Mueller's investigation.
"You've chosen to be the president's lawyer and side with him over the interests of the American people," Democratic Senator Mazie Hirono told Barr, calling him a person who has sacrificed a "once-decent reputation for the grifter and liar that sits in the Oval Office."
Senator Lindsey Graham, the committee's Republican chairman, rushed to Barr's defence, telling Hirono: "You've slandered this man."
Trump has been unfairly smeared, Barr said, by suspicions he had collaborated with Russia in the election.
"Two years of his administration have been dominated by the allegations that have now been proven false. To listen to some of the rhetoric, you would think that the Mueller report had found the opposite," Barr said.
Barr was critical of Mueller for not reaching a conclusion himself on whether Trump obstructed the probe.
"I think that if he felt that he shouldn't go down the path of making a traditional prosecutorial decision, then he shouldn't have investigated," Barr said.
Barr was asked about the report's finding that in June 2017 Trump directed White House counsel Don McGahn to tell Rosenstein that Mueller had conflicts of interest and must be removed.
McGahn did not carry out the order. Rosenstein had appointed Mueller the prior month.
Barr, appointed by Trump after the president fired his predecessor Jeff Sessions, seemed to minimise the incident and said Trump believed "he never outright directed the firing of Mueller".
"We did not think in this case that the government could show corrupt intent," Barr said.
Barr told Senator Dianne Feinstein, the committee's top Democrat: "There is a distinction between saying to someone, 'Go fire him, go fire Mueller,' and saying, 'Have him removed based on conflict.' ... The difference between them is if you remove someone for a conflict of interest, then there would be - presumably - another person appointed."
Feinstein, sounding unconvinced, responded: "Wouldn't you have to have in this situation an identifiable conflict that makes sense, or else doesn't it just become a fabrication?"
'INTENTION WAS VERY CLEAR'
Democratic Senator Dick Durbin was more blunt.
"I think the president's intention was very clear. He wanted this to end," Durbin said, referring to Mueller's investigation.
Under questioning by Democratic Senator Kamala Harris, Barr acknowledged he did not review the investigation's underlying evidence before deciding to clear Trump of obstruction.
Barr disputed the view that Mueller was handing the baton to Congress for possible impeachment proceedings.
"That would be very inappropriate," Barr said. "That's not what the Justice Department does."
Democrats control the House of Representatives, which would start any such impeachment effort, while Trump's fellow Republicans control the Senate, which would have to vote to remove the president.
Democrats asked Barr about Mueller's March 27 letter complaining that Barr's March 24 letter to lawmakers stating the inquiry's main conclusions did not "fully capture the context, nature and substance of this Office's work". Barr testified Mueller was unhappy with the way the conclusions were being characterised in the media, not his account of the conclusions, though Mueller's letter does not mention media coverage.
"The letter is a bit snitty," Barr said, using a word meaning disagreeably ill-tempered, "and I think it was probably written by a member of his staff."
Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy said Barr misled Congress when he testified in April he did not know whether Mueller was happy with his initial characterisation of his findings.
Several Democrats demanded that Mueller testify before the committee, but Graham ruled that out.
Barr told the panel he believed Russia and other countries were still a threat to interfere in US elections.
Committee Republicans did not focus on Trump's conduct but rather on what they saw as the FBI's improper surveillance during the 2016 race of Trump aides they suspected of being Russian agents, as well as on the Kremlin's election meddling.
To that end, Barr defended his accusation in a previous congressional hearing this month that American intelligence agencies engaged in "spying" on Trump campaign figures. He said"spying" is "a good English word" without a pejorative meaning and that he would not back off his language, which echoed Trump's complaints that the Justice Department had engaged in wrongdoing towards his campaign.
Barr indicated that to him, the matter was closed.
"The report is now in the hands of the American people," he said. "We're out of it. We have to stop using the criminal justice system as a political weapon."
The Democratic-led House Judiciary Committee voted to adopt an aggressive questioning format for a hearing set for Thursday with Barr, and a Democratic lawmaker said the panel would subpoena Barr if he does not appear. The committee's subpoena deadline for Barr's department to hand over an unredacted copy of Mueller's report and the underlying evidence expired on Wednesday.