Moments after Robert Mueller gave brief concluding remarks about his Russia probe on Wednesday, the former Republican New Jersey governor and sometime Trump adviser Chris Christie declared that the special counsel’s statement “definitely contradicts what the attorney general said when he summarized Mueller’s report.”
Christie wasn’t alone. The Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff called Mueller’s statement a “direct rebuke of Attorney General William Barr,” arguing that Barr had “deliberately and repeatedly misled the American people.” And while she didn’t mention Barr by name, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she was “greatly disappointed with the Department of Justice for their misrepresentation of the Mueller report.”
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Even though Mueller’s remarks focused on his findings about Russian election meddling and whether President Donald Trump obstructed his probe, it was clear that he had also thrown the klieg lights back on to his old friend Barr — rekindling anger over suspicions that Trump’s attorney general has been carrying water for the president.
And if Mueller was not engaging directly in a food fight, cable news networks did the job for him, playing side-by-side reels of Mueller and Barr’s seemingly conflicting statements nearly all of Wednesday afternoon.
Wittingly or not, Mueller spotlighted differences with Barr on several points. While Barr stated in his April news conference that there was “no evidence of collusion,” Mueller said Wednesday he found “insufficient evidence to charge a broader conspiracy.” And while Mueller gave a nod to Congress when he said that “the Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing,” Barr said he hoped Mueller hadn’t intended to leave the decision to Congress “since we don’t convene grand juries and conduct criminal investigations for that purpose.”
Those differences will help to ensure that Barr continues to be a central figure for the remainder of Trump’s term, a boogeyman to liberals who have called for his impeachment, and an increasing favorite of the president, who has long wanted a loyal attorney general and cheered Barr as he has initiated an investigation of the FBI’s Russia investigation.
Perhaps the most significant divergence between Barr and Mueller, who are longtime friends, dating back to their service at the Department of Justice during the George H.W. Bush administration, came on the explosive question of a potential indictment of Trump for obstructing justice. In Mueller’s telling, a Justice Department policy that a sitting president cannot be indicted guided his investigation and informed his decision not to reach a conclusion about whether Trump obstructed justice. Charging the president with a crime was “not an option,” Mueller said, and accusing him of committing one when he could not try the case in court, Mueller added, violated what he considered “principles of fairness.”
Both Barr and Mueller on Wednesday evening sought to tamp down the fury over their perceived split. In a rare joint statement from Department of Justice spokeswoman Kerri Kupec and Special Counsel spokesman Peter Carr, the two said, “The Attorney General has previously stated that the Special Counsel repeatedly affirmed that he was not saying that, but for the OLC opinion, he would have found the President obstructed justice. The Special Counsel’s report and his statement today made clear that the office concluded it would not reach a determination — one way or the other — about whether the President committed a crime. There is no conflict between these statements.”
Mueller said nothing that wasn’t in his report, which was publicly released April 18. But many political and legal observers were struck by the emphasis he placed on his reasoning behind not bringing obstruction charges against Trump, and his assertion that if his team “had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so.”
“He devoted a third of his only public statement to explaining why the office didn’t charge the president with obstruction, which I think tells you something that was important both to clarify because he thought was important but also for the American public to understand,” said a former White House official interviewed by the special counsel’s office.
Barr, however, seemed to leave a different impression in his own public statements. Speaking to reporters before the release of Mueller’s report in April, and again to lawmakers earlier this month, Barr said Mueller had told him the DOJ policy was not the chief reason he did not charge the president with a crime. “Special counsel Mueller stated three times to us … that he emphatically was not saying that but for the OLC opinion he would have found obstruction,” Barr told a Senate panel in early May. OLC, or the Office of Legal Counsel, is the Justice Department office whose legal guidance has typically been used to mediate between government agencies.
That may technically be true. But Barr’s critics insisted Wednesday that it was a misleading characterization, one that gave the impression that Mueller had said the evidence did not support indicting Trump. Schiff’s statement insisted that Mueller “made clear that, because of the Department’s own policy, it is left it to Congress — not the attorney general — to evaluate and further investigate the president’s misconduct.”
Mueller allies said they thought the special counsel was seeking to clarify why he declined to reach a conclusion on whether the president obstructed justice rather than to pick a fight with the attorney general.
“When I looked at his report there was one section that was open to interpretation,” said Philip Mudd, who worked closely with Mueller during his tenure as FBI director. “I think he looked at that and said, ‘I’m going to clarify that in 8, 9, 10 minutes.’ And that’s what he did. I don’t think Mueller is interested in a ‘He said, she said.’”
It’s not the first indication of tension between the two.
Mueller on Wednesday referred obliquely to a March 27 letter he had sent Barr, after the attorney general first announced his conclusions about Mueller’s then-unreleased report, urging the immediate release of executive summaries of it.
But Mueller seemed to backpedal from any confrontation over the issue by expressing his appreciation for Barr’s decision to make public the vast majority of the report. Mueller also said that he wasn’t questioning Barr’s “good faith” in deciding to wait until a more complete version of the report was ready for release.