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Barr defends his handling of Mueller report, despite criticism from special counsel

Attorney General William Barr testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday to explain his handling of the Mueller report. While Barr defended his actions, Democrats zeroed in on a newly discovered letter from Mueller criticizing Barr's summary of the report's “principal conclusions.” Meanwhile, Barr said he would not attend a planned House hearing Thursday. Judy Woodruff reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It was the first chance to question the attorney general now that the special counsel's report is public.

    William Barr appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee today amid new revelations that Robert Mueller takes issue with how his work was characterized.

    A growing rift between the Department of Justice and the special counsel's office played out today on Capitol Hill. Attorney General William Barr defended his handling of Robert Mueller's report on Russian interference in the 2016 election.

  • William Barr:

    His work concluded when he sent his report to the attorney general. At that point, it was my baby. And I was making a decision as to whether or not to make it public.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Barr told the Senate Judiciary Committee he was surprised the report was delivered to him unredacted, complaining he and his staff had to go through the 448-page report to conceal sensitive information.

  • William Barr:

    Quickly became apparent it would take three or four weeks.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    He also criticized Mueller's decision not to reach a conclusion on the matter of obstruction of justice. Barr said Mueller first told him of that decision at meeting in early March.

  • William Barr:

    We were, frankly, surprised that they were not going to reach a decision on obstruction.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Less than three weeks later, Barr received Mueller's final report and within two days issued his own four-page letter.

  • William Barr:

    The March 24 letter wasn't a summary of the report, but a statement of the principal conclusions.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Democrats on the committee today focused their questions on both that letter and another one, from Mueller to Barr, first reported Tuesday night.

    Dated March 27, Mueller wrote to Barr that his memo had caused public confusion about critical aspects of the probe — quoting — "This threatens to undermine a central purpose for which the department appointed the special counsel: to assure full public confidence in the outcome of the investigations."

  • William Barr:

    The letter is a bit snitty, and I think it was probably written by one of his staff people.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That letter contradicts Barr's previous testimony during an April House appropriations hearing. The attorney general told Congressman Charlie Crist of Florida he was unaware of any concern from the special counsel team.

  • Rep. Charlie Crist, D-Fla.:

    Do you know what they're referencing with that?

  • William Barr:

    No, I don't. I suspect that they probably wanted more put out.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin claimed Barr misled that committee.

  • Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill.:

    You couldn't recall that, when Congressman Crist asked you that question a few days later?

  • William Barr:

    The March 24 letter stated that Bob Mueller didn't reach a conclusion on obstruction, and it had the language in there about not exonerating the president.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    While most Democrats zeroed in on what happened after the 2016 election, some Republicans shifted their focus to what happened before Election Day.

  • Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.:

    Now, there was another campaign. It was the Clinton campaign.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Republican Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri argued the initial probe into the Trump campaign began with two FBI agents assigned to the investigation who opposed Mr. Trump.

  • Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo.:

    I cannot believe that a top official of this government with the kind of power that these people had would try to exercise their own prejudices. And that's what this is.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Barr, for his part, said he intends to look into how the investigation began in July 2016. He didn't deny President Trump or other White House officials have asked him to pursue investigations. California Senator Kamala Harris:

  • Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.:

    Seems you would remember something like that and be able to tell us.

  • William Barr:

    Yes, but I'm trying to grapple with the word suggest.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Meanwhile, there was some bipartisan concern about ongoing Russian interference in U.S. elections.

    Republican Ben Sasse of Nebraska:

  • Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb.:

    In a digital cyber era, you don't need a bar and a hooker anymore. You can surround people digitally easier. And we know that we're going to have these kinds of attacks in the future. And we need to up our game.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Delaware Democrat Chris Coons asked Barr if a candidate should notify law enforcement if a foreign adversary reaches out to the campaign.

  • Sen. Chris Coon, D-Del.:

    Let's now say North Korea offers a presidential candidate dirt on a competitor in 2020. Do you agree with me the campaign should immediately contact the FBI? If a foreign intelligence service, a representative of a foreign government, says, we have dirt on your opponent, should they say, I love it, let's meet, or should they contact the FBI?

    (CROSSTALK)

  • William Barr:

    If a foreign intelligence service does, yes.

  • Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.:

    We're in the middle of a roll…

  • Man:

    No, we were in the middle of debate.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Barr's appearance contrasted with the proceedings happening at the same time before the House Judiciary Committee.

  • Man:

    Parliamentary inquiry, Mr…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.:

    The gentleman will suspend, until recognized.

  • Man:

    Parliamentary inquiry.

  • Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.:

    We cannot have people shouting over each other.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    They voted on the format for their own hearing with the attorney general tomorrow, approving extra time and giving committee lawyers the green light to pose their own questions.

    Barr previously raised objections to these changes, objections that the committee chair, Democrat Jerry Nadler of New York, dismissed.

  • Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.:

    I don't know what he is afraid of from questioning by staff counsel.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Repeatedly, Republicans, including Wisconsin's Jim Sensenbrenner, suggested Democrats had other motivations.

  • Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.:

    You're trying to use the procedures of an impeachment committee in doing oversight.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    They also clashed over special counsel Mueller's March 27 letter to Barr. Maryland Democrat Jamie Raskin:

  • Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md.:

    This is a pattern of outrageous obstructionism that continues the obstructionism contained in the report.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Meanwhile, the Republican ranking member, Doug Collins of Georgia, suggested the alarm was overblown.

  • Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga.:

    Even the letter the chairman mentioned today said that they were concerned about context. Nowhere in there does it say that Mueller disagreed with the findings. That's not true to say that they disagreed with the findings. They didn't disagree with the findings.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    As the focus continues to be on Barr and his oversight of the special counsel's investigation, there is no official word yet on when Mueller himself might testify.

    The "NewsHour," by the way, can now confirm this evening that the attorney general will not appear before the U.S. House committee tomorrow.

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