WASHINGTON (CN) – Attorney General William Barr defended his representation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report Wednesday, telling lawmakers that despite Mueller’s concerns Barr failed to capture the substance of the report, it was the news media that distorted his initial summary.
“The body politic was in a high state of agitation,” Barr said at the first, highly anticipated hearing Congress has held since the public release of Mueller’s redacted report last month.
Barr spoke before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. He was also expected to go before the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday, but said Wednesday afternoon he will not show up. Barr objected to the format of having congressional attorneys as well as lawmakers ask questions.
Explaining the process behind his decision to publish his initial four-page summary describing his “bottom-line” conclusions of Mueller’s two-year investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, Barr told members of the Senate committee Wednesday he did what the Justice Department would “normally do” and he made a determination based on whether a crime occurred.
“I analogize it to announcing the verdict after an extended trial, pending a full release of a transcript. That’s what we’re trying to do: notify people of the bottom line conclusions, not summarize the full report,” he said.
Barr also said he offered Mueller a chance to review his summary but the special counsel declined.
“I asked him if the summary was inaccurate and he said no. The press reporting on it was inaccurate,” Barr said, before noting that Mueller was “very clear” he believed Barr’s summary had not ultimately misrepresented the special counsel’s findings.
Despite Barr’s claims that the media misconstrued his summary and that Mueller took no issue with the description, the attorney general also testified Wednesday that Mueller did express concern that Barr failed to accurately represent why he did not reach a conclusion on obstruction of justice by President Donald Trump.
Mueller wanted to issue several summaries of each volume in the report, Barr recalled.
But the attorney general had no interest in releasing the report “piecemeal,” saying Wednesday he didn’t feel it would be in the public interest to allow any further delay.
He told Congress, he was “frankly surprised” that Mueller did not reach a conclusion on the obstruction matter.
But according to a March 27 letter released only an hour before Wednesday’s hearing, Mueller twice asked Barr to publish additional investigative findings from the report.
The first request was made on March 25, a day after Barr released the four-page summary appearing to clear Trump of wrongdoing. The second request came just two days later.
Barr’s summary did not “fully capture the context, nature and substance of this office’s work and conclusions,” Mueller wrote. “There is now public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation.”
Democrats on the committee pressed Barr on why he claimed during his testimony before the Senate last month to be unaware of any issues members of Mueller’s investigative team might have had with his summary.
“I don’t know what members of the team were being talked about,” Barr told Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont.
Barr also defended the president Wednesday, saying Trump was not trying to quash the investigation by removing Mueller.
“There is a distinction between saying to someone, ‘Go fire him, go fire Mueller’ or, ‘Have him removed because of conflict,” Barr said, referring to former White House counsel Don McGahn.
According to the special counsel’s report, McGahn told Mueller that Trump twice called him and directed him to tell the Department of Justice that Mueller should be removed due to an unspecified potential conflict of interest. McGahn refused.
The attorney general told a skeptical Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., that the president only meant to have the conflict of interest issue raised with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and that any decision to fire Mueller should be left to Rosenstein.
“But you still have a situation where the president tries to change a lawyer’s account in order to prevent further criticism of himself,” Feinstein said.
“Well, that’s not a crime. To be obstruction, it has to impair the evidence in a particular proceeding. McGahn already gave his evidence to Mueller,” Barr said.
The attorney general also refused to say whether he believed the president lied to the American people when he denied telling McGahn to have Mueller fired.
“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 was committed,” Barr said.
Barr’s handling of the report spurred multiple calls for his resignation by Democratic lawmakers.
Hawaii Democratic Senator Mazie Hirono laced into both Barr and Trump during the hearing, calling the president a “grifter” and “liar” before saying the attorney general appears to operate as personal counsel for the president.
“You also let the president’s personal lawyers look at the report before you even deigned to let Congress see it. Now we know, thanks to a free press, that Mueller objected to your summary,” Hirono said.
Hirono had voted against Barr’s confirmation in February and told the attorney general he did exactly what she thought he would do if confirmed.
“I expected you to try and protect the president and you did,” she said.
Presidential hopeful Kamala Harris, D-Calif., also called for Barr’s resignation Wednesday.
“What I just saw from the Attorney General was unacceptable. Barr must resign now,” Harris tweeted.
Harris’ exchange with Barr was tense: the senator grilled him over whether Trump asked him to open an investigation into anyone within or outside of the White House.
But Barr hedged, saying he was unsure.
Under questioning by Harris, Barr also admitted he did not review all of the evidence underpinning the Mueller report before issuing his conclusions.
“If you run the Department of Justice, or any U.S. attorney’s office, when asked to make a critical decision, would you accept a decision on charging if evidence was not reviewed?” Harris asked.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Wednesday morning she would consider demanding Barr’s resignation but only after the hearing concluded.
Pelosi’s office could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday afternoon.
As the five-hour hearing concluded, Barr made his exit on a testy exchange with Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, who also called for his resignation Wednesday.
Blumenthal asked the attorney general if he would turn over any notes he may have taken during a phone conversation with Mueller about the March 27 letter.
“Why should I?” Barr said.
During a scrum with reporters following the hearing, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told reporters he would submit a letter to Mueller asking if he has any dispute with Barr’s characterization of the letter.
The chairman said he would not subpoena Mueller to testify.