WASHINGTON (CN) – Still digesting this morning’s lodestone of findings on Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, Democrats accused Attorney General William Barr Thursday of downplaying the report by special counsel Robert Mueller to benefit President Donald Trump.
Before Mueller’s report became public at 11 a.m., Barr was the only person who had given indications of what the bombshell document said, delivering snippets of details about the report in the weeks, days and even hours before the report was released.
In a 4-page letter to Congress in March, Barr quoted Mueller’s report as saying the “investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”
As for the question of whether Trump obstructed justice, Barr quoted the Mueller report as saying, “while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
With the report now public, Barr’s critics say his quotations take on different meaning when put in context.
For example, Mueller’s report notes that, while the investigation did not find a conspiracy, Trump’s campaign did view Russia’s actions during the election as a political plus.
“Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities,” the report states.
As for Barr’s statement on obstruction, the report makes clear that Mueller expressly declined to say Trump did not obstruct justice.
“If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the president clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state,” Mueller wrote. “Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment. The evidence we obtained about the president’s actions and intent presents difficult issues that prevent us from conclusively determining that no criminal conduct occurred. Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said the differences between Mueller’s report and Barr’s statements are “stark.”
“As we continue to review the report, one thing is clear: Attorney General Barr presented a conclusion that the president did not obstruct justice while Mueller’s report appears to undercut that finding,” the leaders said.
House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., accused Barr of showing an “unsettling willingness” to spin the report in Trump’s favor, regardless of its findings. He accused Barr of leaving out key context, or entire portions of Mueller’s work, in an effort to cast the report more favorably for Trump.
“Barr’s words and actions suggest he has been disingenuous and misleading in saying the president is clear of wrongdoing,” Nadler said at a press conference Thursday afternoon.
Nadler said he would like to know more about how much an Office of Legal Counsel opinion that states a sitting president cannot be indicted played into Mueller’s decisions on the obstruction of justice investigation.
Barr’s letter said his own evaluation of the issue had nothing to do with the OLC opinion, but Mueller’s report mentions the opinion as one of the factors that “guided” the team’s obstruction investigation. The report states that Mueller’s team accepted the opinion’s holding “for the purpose of exercising prosecutorial jurisdiction.”
Barr is set to go before Nadler’s committee in early May.
Another discrepancy emerges in the context of Barr’s statement at a press conference this morning that the White House cooperated fully with Mueller’s investigation. As Nadler noted, the report states Trump refused to sit down for an interview with the special counsel’s office but did provide answers to Mueller’s written questions about “certain Russia-related topics.”
Representative Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat and presidential hopeful, called for Barr to resign in light of his comments in the letter and at a press conference before the report was released late Thursday morning.
“Today, [Barr] made a show of allegiance to the president over the American people by declaring ‘no collusion’ and excusing the president on the basis of his emotional state,” Swalwell said in a statement.