WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Attorney General William Barr on Thursday offered a spirited defense of President Donald Trump just before releasing Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russia’s role in the 2016 U.S. election.
Barr, the top U.S. law enforcement official and a Trump appointee, revealed that the report detailed 10 episodes of potential obstruction of justice by the president.
Barr gave a news conference at the Justice Department as he sought to shape the narrative on a watershed day in Trump’s tumultuous presidency.
One of a handful of people to have seen the report before its release, Barr emphasized, as he had said last month, that Mueller did not conclude there was collusion between Trump’s campaign and Moscow.
“President Trump faced an unprecedented situation. As he entered into office and sought to perform his responsibilities as president, federal agents and prosecutors were scrutinizing his conduct before and after taking office and the conduct of some of his associates,” Barr said.
“At the same time, there was relentless speculation in the news media about the president’s personal culpability. Yet, as he said from the beginning, there was in fact no collusion,” added Barr. Shortly after, he sent the report to Congress.
Democrats sharply criticized Barr. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Twitter the attorney general “has confirmed the staggering partisan effort” by the Trump administration to mold public opinion on the report and blasted him for offering Trump’s lawyers “a sneak preview” to help them respond to the findings.
Despite his defense of Trump, Barr said the report details 10 episodes involving Trump and possible attempts to obstruct justice by hindering Mueller’s probe.
Barr said after first receiving the report last month that he and his deputy Rod Rosenstein had concluded Trump had not committed obstruction of justice. But he pointed on Thursday to a difference of opinion between him and Mueller, a former FBI director, on that issue.
Barr said he and Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller as special counsel in 2017, “disagreed with some of the special counsel’s legal theories and felt that some of the episodes examined did not amount to obstruction as a matter of law.”
Among possible obstruction of justice that Mueller is known to have investigated is Trump’s 2017 firing of FBI Director James Comey.
“Apart from whether the acts were obstructive, this evidence of non-corrupt motives weighs heavily against any allegation that the president had a corrupt intent to obstruct the investigation,” Barr said. He gave not more details of the possible obstruction incidents.
‘SPIN THE FACTS’
Barr disclosed that Trump’s personal lawyers “were given the opportunity to read a final version of the redacted report before it was publicly released.”
Democratic Representative Mark Pocan, a leading liberal voice in the House, wrote on Twitter that Barr was acting openly in favor of Trump. “Trying to spin the facts in favor of the President, just moments before its public release, is only weakening the American public’s trust in our government.”
The prospect of the Democratic-led House beginning an impeachment process to remove Trump from office receded with the release of Mueller’s initial findings last month.
Some House Democrats had spoken of launching impeachment proceedings against Trump in Congress but top Democrats have been notably cautious. Any such effort would be unlikely to be successful because Trump fellow Republicans controls the Senate, which would decide the president’s fate.
The report’s disclosure, with portions expected to be blacked out by Barr to protect some sensitive information, is certain to launch a new political fight in Congress and on the 2020 presidential campaign trail, as Trump seeks re-election in a deeply divided country.
Moments after Barr concluded his news conference, Trump posted an image of himself on Twitter surrounded by fog with the words: “No collusion. No obstruction. For the haters and the radical left Democrats – GAME OVER.”
The inquiry laid bare what the special counsel and U.S. intelligence agencies have described as a Russian campaign of hacking and propaganda to sow discord in the United States, denigrate Clinton and boost Trump, the Kremlin’s preferred candidate. Russia has denied election interference.
“The Russian government sought to interfere in our election process but thanks to the special counsel’s thorough investigation, we now know that the Russian operatives who perpetrated these schemes did not have the cooperation of President Trump or the Trump campaign,” Barr said.
The report promises to provide new details about some of the biggest questions in the investigation, including the extent and nature of his campaign’s interactions with Russia and actions Trump may have taken to hinder the inquiry.
Mueller submitted the report to Barr on March 22. Two days later, Barr told lawmakers the inquiry did not establish that Trump’s 2016 campaign team engaged in a criminal conspiracy with Russia and that Mueller had not reached a formal conclusion on obstruction of justice.
Barr seemed to offer cover for Trump’s actions by saying the report acknowledges that “there is substantial evidence to show that the president was frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents, and fueled by illegal leaks.”
Justice Department regulations give Barr broad authority to decide how much of the report to make public.
“That’s the bottom line. After nearly two years of investigations, thousands of subpoenas, hundreds of warrants and witness interviews, the special counsel confirmed that the Russian government sponsored efforts to illegally interfere in the 2016 presidential election but did not find that the Trump campaign or other Americans colluded in those efforts,” Barr said.
The release of the report may deepen an already bitter partisan rift between Trump’s fellow Republicans, most of whom have rallied around the president, and his Democratic critics, who will have to decide how hard to go after Trump as they prepare congressional investigations of his administration.
Wall Street took Barr’s comments in stride, with the S&P 500 holding slight gains during the news conference then slipping into negative territory after it ended.
Democrats were furious that Barr held a news conference on the report before it was provided to Congress.
Barr said “significant portions” of the report could have been kept secret because of a legal doctrine called executive privilege that lets the president withhold information about executive branch deliberations from other branches of government, but were not redacted.
Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Additional reporting by David Morgan, Doina Chiacu, Andy Sullivan, Susan Cornwell, Richard Cowan, Amanda Becker, Jan Wolfe, Nathan Layne, Karen Freifeld and Makini Brice; Writing by John Whitesides and Will Dunham, Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Alistair Bell