William Barr testifies on the Mueller report

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12:00 p.m. ET, May 1, 2019

Barr downplays Trump's effort to remove Mueller — but report contradicts Barr

NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

Attorney General William Barr asserted to the Senate Judiciary Committee that President Trump was concerned with special counsel Robert Mueller’s potential conflicts of interest when he tried to remove him.

Mueller acknowledges this, but says Trump was immediately told the conflicts of interest were “ridiculous” and didn’t affect Mueller’s service.

"This evidence shows that the President was not just seeking an examination of whether conflicts existed but instead was looking to use asserted conflicts as a way to terminate the special counsel," Mueller wrote.

Mueller's report also directly refutes Barr's statement today that Trump may not have believed he was asking White House Counsel Don McGahn to say something false. In his analysis of the episodes with McGahn, the Mueller report says: "There also is evidence that the President knew that he should not have made those calls to McGahn."

Here’s what Mueller’s report says about the episode with then-White House counsel Don McGahn:

“The President’s initial direction that [then-attorney general] Jeff Sessions should limit the Special Counsel’s investigation came just two days after the President had ordered McGahn to have the special counsel removed, which itself followed public reports that the President was personally under investigation for obstruction,” Mueller notes. "The sequence of those events raises an inference that after seeking to terminate the Special Counsel, the President sought to exclude his and his campaign's conduct from the investigation's scope.”

Mueller identifies this motivation as part of Trump’s intent to prevent the investigation of from continuing.

"Substantial evidence indicates that the President's attempts to remove the Special Counsel were linked to the Special Counsel's oversight of investigations that involved the President's conduct-- and, most immediately, to reports that the President was being investigated for potential obstruction of justice," Mueller also wrote. 

11:45 a.m. ET, May 1, 2019

Barr has "no objection" to Mueller testifying, but says Trump has to decide on McGahn

Attorney General William Barr said he has no issue with special counsel Robert Mueller testifying before Congress. But allowing former White House counsel Don McGahn to testify would be up to President Trump, he said.

Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat, asked him about the possible testimony.

Durbin: At this point, do you believe — you're saying — what about Bob Mueller? Should he be allowed to testify? 

Barr: I already said publicly, I have no objection. 

Durbin: Don McGahn, should he be allowed to testify? 

Barr: That's a call for the President to make. 

Durbin: Well he's a private citizen at this point.

Barr: I assume he would be testifying about privileged matters. 

11:44 a.m. ET, May 1, 2019

Sen. Dick Durbin slams Republican focus on Hillary Clinton's emails

Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin criticized his Republican counterparts for their focus on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's emails during today's hearing.

"I’ve been listening carefully to my Republican colleagues on the other side, and it appears they are going to work together and coordinate the so-called lock-her-up defense," Durbin said.

"This is really not supposed to be about the Mueller investigation, the Russian involvement in the election, the Trump campaign, and so forth," Durbin said. "It is really about Hillary Clinton’s emails."

The Illinois senator then went through a list of scandals and conspiracy theories surrounding the former Democratic presidential nominee.

"Hillary Clinton’s emails, questions have to be asked about Benghazi along the way, what about Travelgate, Whitewater — there’s a lot of material we should be going through today, according to their response to this," he said.

Durbin slammed Republicans, saying it is "totally unresponsive to the reality of what the American people want to know."

"They paid a lot of money, $25 million, for this report. I respect Mr. Mueller and believe he came up with a sound report, though I don’t agree with all of it. But I find General Barr that some of the things that you’ve engaged in really leave me wondering what you believe your role as attorney general is when it comes to something like this," Durbin said.

11:43 a.m. ET, May 1, 2019

Democratic senator tells Barr he's being "purposely misleading" in testimony

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images
Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, accused Attorney General William Barr of being "purposely misleading" in his testimony today.

"Mr. Barr, I feel that your answer was purposely misleading, and I think others do, too," he told the Attorney General.

Here's how it unfolded:

Barr: Reports have emerged recently – press reports – that members of the special counsels’ team are frustrated at some level with the limited information included in your March 24 letter in that they don’t adequately or accurately portray the report’s findings. I don’t know what members he’s talking about, and I certainly and not aware of any challenge to the accuracy of the findings.

Leahy: Mr. Barr, you seem to have learned the filibuster rules even better than the senators do, my question was, why did you say you are not aware of concerns, when weeks before your testimony, Mr. Mueller had expressed concerns to you. That’s a very simple thing.

Barr: I answered a question, and the question was relating to unidentified members who were expressing frustration over the accuracy relating to findings. I don’t know what that refers to at all. I talked directly to Bob Mueller, not members of his team. And even though I did not know what was being referred to and Mueller had never told me that the expression of the findings was inaccurate but I did then volunteer that I thought they were talking about the desire to have more information put out. But it wasn’t my purpose to put out more information,.

Leahy: Mr. Barr, I feel that your answer was purposely misleading, and I think others do, too.

12:19 p.m. ET, May 1, 2019

Barr says he "can't state that with confidence" that infamous dossier wasn't Russian disinformation

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Attorney General William Barr said he is reviewing an infamous dossier — compiled by retired British spy Christopher Steele — as part of his probe into the origins of the Russia investigation.

He said it’s not “entirely speculative” to consider the dossier as part of the Russian disinformation campaign in the election.

Asked by Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas, if he could state that the dossier was in fact not part of the Russian influence campaign, Barr said, “No, I can’t state that with confidence and that is one of the areas that I’m reviewing. I’m concerned about it, and I don’t think it’s entirely speculative.”

About those claims: CNN revisited the dossier earlier this year and analyzed the veracity of some of the claims, two years after it first came into public view. The most salacious claims in the dossier remain unproven – like allegations that top Trump campaign officials colluded with Russians. But many of the allegations that form the bulk of the intelligence memos have held up over time, or have proven to be at least partially true. Much of the material holds up with what we now know about Trump's team, their contacts with Russians and Russian election meddling.

11:25 a.m. ET, May 1, 2019

Mueller report contradicts Barr on role of OLC opinion in obstruction decisions

Attorney General William Barr said that during a March meeting with special counsel Robert Mueller, Mueller "reiterated several times in a group meeting that he was not saying that but for the OLC [Office of Legal Counsel] opinion he would have found obstruction."

This was the latest in a series of statements from Barr in which he downplayed the role of the Justice Department guidelines against indicting a president. Barr made the same claim at his press conference before releasing the Mueller report in April.

Why this matters: Internal Justice Department policies say that a sitting president cannot be indicted. The policy comes from the OLC and it dates back to the Nixon administration. It is binding on all Justice Department employees, including Mueller and his team of prosecutors.

But despite Barr’s comments, Mueller's report directly explains how this had a major impact on his internal deliberations. In effect, Mueller framed his entire obstruction investigation around the notion that he couldn't bring any charges against Trump even if he found ironclad evidence against him, because of the OLC opinion.

"Given the role of the special counsel as an attorney in the Department of Justice and the framework of the special counsel regulations... this office accepted OLC's legal conclusion for the purpose of exercising prosecutorial jurisdiction," Mueller wrote in the report.

That appeared on the very first page of the volume that addressed obstruction of justice. This framework is a far cry from Barr's public pronouncements that the OLC opinion had no bearing on obstruction endgame. 

11:21 a.m. ET, May 1, 2019

This is the difference between firing the special counsel and removing him based on conflict, according to Barr

Attorney General William Barr just said in an exchange with Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein that he believes there is difference between firing the special counsel and telling then-White House Counsel Don McGahn to remove him "based on conflict."

Here's the exchange:

Feinstein: You still have a situation where a president essentially tries to change the lawyer's account in order to prevent further criticism of himself.

Barr: Well that’s not a crime.

Feinstein: So you can, in this situation, instruct someone to lie?

Barr: No, it has to be, well, to be obstruction of justice, the lie has to be tied to impairing the evidence in a particular proceeding. McGahn had already given his evidence, and I think it would be plausible that the purpose of McGahn memorializing what the President was asking was to make the record that the President never directed him to fire. And there is a distinction between saying to someone, “Go fire him, go fire Mueller” and saying, “have him removed based on conflict.” They have different results.

Feinstein: And what would that conflict be?

Barr: The difference between them is that if you removed someone for a conflict of interest, then there would be presumably another person appointed.

11:11 a.m. ET, May 1, 2019

Barr envisions "some kind of reporting" on his spying probe

Attorney General William Barr said officials in the Justice Department are reviewing the early days of the Russia investigation and allegations of unlawful government surveillance, referred to by the President and his allies as “spygate.”

“I do have people in the department helping me review the activities over the summer of 2016,” Barr said.

Barr said it was too early to commit to sharing any potential conclusions with Congress but said “I envision some kind of reporting at the end of this.”

Here's what we know about the "spying" claim:

The surveillance of Trump campaign aide Carter Page, under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, has become a rallying cry for Republicans. They say it proves that the FBI abused tools typically meant to target terrorists to instead prey on the Trump campaign.

But these talking points ignore critical facts. The surveillance did begin under the Obama administration, but Trump's own appointees at the Justice Department continued it. When it started, Page had already left Trump's campaign. And all four federal judges who approved the warrants and renewals had been appointed by Republican presidents.

The FBI controversially used some material from a dossier of explosive memos written by a retired British spy alleging widespread Trump-Russia collusion, in addition to other intelligence that remains redacted, when applying for the first FISA warrant. Republicans have said this is an abuse of US intelligence because the dossier was funded by Democrats who opposed Trump.

There's also the informant, a longtime FBI source who met with Page, Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos and another Trump campaign official to glean information for investigators about their Russia ties.

Trump dubbed this situation "spygate" and said it shows that the Obama administration planted a "spy" in his campaign. But CNN reported that this isn't true. The informant wasn't spying on Team Trump for political purposes. His role was to assist a serious FBI investigation. Both Page and Papadopoulos later acknowledged having extensive contacts with Russians.

11:16 a.m. ET, May 1, 2019

Feinstein drilled for answers on obstruction of justice

Attorney General William Barr and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein got into a tense back-and-forth about whether President Trump tried to change former White House counsel Don McGahn's account.

Here's how the exchange went down:

Feinstein: Does existing law prohibit efforts to get a witness to lie to say something the witness believes is false?

Barr: Yes. Lie to the government, yes.

Feinstein: And what law is that?

Barr: Obstruction statutes.

Feinstein: The obstruction statute. And you don’t have it, I guess, before you?

Barr: Well, I’m not sure which one they are referring to here — it was probably, 1512 C2.

Feinstein: So, these things in effect constitute obstruction.

Barr: Well you are talking in general terms.

Feinstein: I am talking about specifically — yes, you are correct in a sense, that the special counsel in his report found substantial evidence that the President tried to change McGahn’s account in order to prevent — and this is a quote — further scrutiny of the President toward the investigation. End quote. The special counsel also found McGahn is a credible witness with no motives to lie or exaggerate. So what I am asking you, then, is that a credible charge, under the obstruction statute?

Barr: We felt that that episode, the government would not be able to establish obstruction. The — if you go back and if you look at the episode where McGahn — the President gave McGahn an obstruction — an instruction, McGahn’s version of that is quite clear, and each time he gave it, which is that the instruction said, go to Rosenstein, raise the issue of conflict of interest, and Mueller has to go because of this conflict of interest. So there is no question that that — that the, whatever instruction was given, McGahn had to do with conflict — with Mueller’s conflict of interest.