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Attorney General William Barr, flanked by Acting Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General Edward O'Callaghan and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, speaks at a news conference to discuss Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report on Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential race, in Washington, April 18, 2019. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

3 times Mueller and Barr gave different pictures of Trump obstruction probe

For almost two years, Robert Mueller worked as the special counsel running the Justice Department’s Russia investigation. In the investigation’s final weeks, William Barr served as the attorney general overseeing him.

But when the report was made public Thursday, Mueller (in a 448-page document) and Barr (in a 20-minute news conference) offered very different portrayals of a key aspect of the investigation: the inquiry into whether President Donald Trump obstructed justice.

Here’s a look at a few key issues on which Barr and Mueller disagreed.

On the obstruction evidence against Trump

Barr remarks: “…the deputy attorney general and I concluded that the evidence developed by the special counsel is not sufficient to establish that the president committed an obstruction-of-justice offense … [E]vidence of non-corrupt motives weighs heavily against any allegation that the president had a corrupt intent to obstruct the investigation.”

Mueller report: “…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. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, we are unable to reach that judgment. Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”

Mueller report: “The evidence we obtained about the President’s actions and intent presents difficult issues that would need to be resolved if we were making a traditional prosecutorial judgment.”

Context: On the issue of obstruction, Barr and Mueller made sharply different assessments of the gravity of the evidence compiled against Trump — even though Mueller wrote in his report that his team chose not to make any formal conclusions about whether Trump obstructed justice.

Mueller looked into 11 separate patterns of conduct as part of the investigation into obstruction, including Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey; efforts pressuring Jeff Sessions, the previous attorney general, to reverse his recusal from the investigation; and Trump’s efforts to fire Mueller himself.

Mueller acknowledged that, had he been in a position to prosecute Trump, such a case may not have been clear-cut. He also wrote that under the law someone can be guilty of obstruction of justice even in the absence of an underlying crime.

Barr’s portrayal, however, was different: He argued there wasn’t enough evidence to establish a crime, and also said Mueller’s conclusion that there was no collusion between Russia and Trump played a factor in his decision on whether obstruction could have occured. Barr also stressed actions the White House took to cooperate with the Mueller probe — though he omitted that Trump refused to answer questions from Mueller about obstruction — as well as Trump’s “sincere belief” that his presidency was being undermined.

On Justice Department guidelines against indicting a president

Barr remarks: “…Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein and I met with him [Mueller] … on March 5. We specifically asked him about the OLC opinion and whether or not he was taking the position that he would have found a crime but for the existence of the OLC opinion. And he made it very clear several times that that was not his position. He was not saying that, but for the OLC opinion, he would have found a crime. He made it clear that he had not made the determination that there was a crime.”

Mueller report: “…we considered whether to evaluate the conduct we investigated … but we determined not to apply an approach that could potentially result in a judgment that the President committed crimes … Fairness concerns counseled against potentially reaching that judgment when no charges can be brought.”

Context: Mueller did discuss a long-standing legal opinion from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, or OLC, that any prosecution of a sitting president would be unconstitutional.

The special counsel wrote that he chose to comply with the OLC opinion, and that he had “fairness concerns” about arriving at a final judgment on whether Trump committed a crime, if Trump couldn’t be prosecuted now.

Barr, during his news conference Thursday, gave a different account when asked by reporters, saying he believed the OLC opinion was not a deciding factor for Mueller when weighing whether he had enough evidence that there was a crime.

On whether a final judgment on obstruction was left to Congress

Barr remarks: “Special Counsel Mueller did not indicate that his purpose was to leave the decision to Congress. I hope that was not his view since we don’t convene grand juries and conduct criminal investigations for that purpose … I did not talk to him directly about the fact that we were making the decision, but I am told that his reaction to that was that it was my prerogative as attorney general to make that decision.”

Mueller report: “With respect to whether the President can be found to have obstructed justice by exercising his powers … we concluded that Congress has authority to prohibit a President’s corrupt use of his authority in order to protect the integrity of the administration of justice.”

Context: The accounts offer conflicting portrayals over whether Mueller’s report left any final judgment on Trump’s conduct to Congress. Barr said the judgment ended up falling to him.

Mueller’s report did not explicitly say that the decision was solely Congress’ to make. But he did argue that Congress has the power to weigh in.

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