- Attorney General William Barr appeared to lean on semantics when he told Congress on Wednesday that a key interaction between President Donald Trump and the White House counsel did not amount to obstruction of justice.
- Barr was asked about Trump’s directive to Don McGahn, then the White House counsel, to have Robert Mueller removed as special counsel and subsequent efforts to get McGahn to deny reporting that Trump had done so.
- “There’s a distinction between saying to someone, ‘Go fire him. Go fire Mueller,’ and saying, ‘Have him removed based on conflict,'” Barr told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “They have different results.”
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Attorney General William Barr went to great lengths Wednesday to explain why a critical interaction between President Donald Trump and the chief White House lawyer about the Russia investigation did not amount to obstruction of justice.
While testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee about his oversight of the special counsel Robert Mueller, Barr was asked about Trump’s efforts to get Don McGahn, who was the White House counsel at the time, to have Mueller removed.
As he explained why he determined that Trump’s actions didn’t amount to obstruction, Barr zeroed in on what he described as a distinction between Trump explicitly directing McGahn to “fire Mueller” and telling McGahn to “have him removed” based on a conflict of interest.
Mueller’s final report in the Russia investigation, which was released with light redactions last month, extensively detailed Trump’s interactions with McGahn.
In one instance, the report said Trump called McGahn shortly after the media reported in June 2017 that Mueller was investigating whether the president obstructed justice.
On June 17, 2017, Trump called McGahn at home and “directed him to call the Acting Attorney General and say that the Special Counsel had conflicts of interest and must be removed,” the report said. (Rod Rosenstein was acting attorney general.) McGahn specifically recalled that Trump told him Mueller “can’t be the Special Counsel” and “Mueller has to go.”
McGahn did not carry out the order, “deciding that he would resign rather than trigger what he regarded as a potential Saturday Night Massacre,” the report said.
- REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Months later, after The New York Times reported in January 2018 on Trump’s efforts to have Mueller removed, Trump reacted to the news “by directing White House officials to tell McGahn to dispute the story and create a record stating he had not been ordered to have the Special Counsel removed,” the report said.
McGahn refused to do so.
During Barr’s hearing, the committee’s ranking member, Sen. Dianne Feinstein from California, asked the attorney general whether Trump’s directive to McGahn to have Mueller removed, and his subsequent efforts to get him to change his story, amounted to a “credible charge under the obstruction statute.”
“We felt that in that episode, the government would not be able to establish obstruction,” Barr replied. He went on to distinguish between three scenarios:
- Trump’s version of events, which was to tell McGahn to raise the issue with Rosenstein of Mueller’s perceived conflict of interest, and leave the decision to Rosenstein about whether to remove Mueller.
- McGahn’s version of events, which Barr characterized as McGahn viewing Trump’s instruction as more of an order, with the president “essentially saying, push Rosenstein to ‘invoke’ a conflict of interest to push Mueller out.”
- The New York Times’ reporting that Trump directed McGahn to oust Mueller.
“There’s a distinction between saying to someone, ‘Go fire him. Go fire Mueller,’ and saying, ‘Have him removed based on conflict,'” Barr said. “They have different results. The difference between them is if you remove someone for conflict of interest, then there’d be another person appointed.”
Barr also defended Trump’s efforts to have McGahn publicly dispute The Times’ reporting.
“There is evidence the president truly felt that The Times’ article was inaccurate and he wanted McGahn to correct it,” Barr said. “So we believe it would be impossible for the government to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that the president understood that he was instructing McGahn to say something false, because it wasn’t necessarily false.”
“But you still have a situation where a president essentially tries to change the lawyer’s account in order to prevent further criticism of himself,” Feinstein said.
“Well,” Barr replied, “that’s not a crime.”
Barr’s testimony came on the heels of new reporting from The Times and The Washington Post that Mueller sent a letter to Barr on March 27 expressing frustration with Barr’s characterization of the special counsel’s findings.
In a March 24 letter to Congress, Barr told lawmakers Mueller did not find sufficient evidence to establish a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. Barr also said prosecutors did not come to a “traditional prosecutorial judgment” on the question of obstruction. But Barr added that he consulted with Rosenstein and determined Mueller did not have enough evidence to charge the president with obstruction.
Mueller sent an initial letter to Barr on March 25 outlining his concerns. In the second letter, Mueller said Barr’s letter to Congress “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance of this Office’s work and conclusions.”