By Andy Sullivan and Sarah N. Lynch
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Under pressure from Senate Democrats, Attorney General William Barr defended his handling of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russia’s role in the 2016 U.S. election, saying Mueller was given broad authority to conduct his investigation.
“As you see, Bob Mueller was allowed to complete his work as he saw fit,” Barr told a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, adding that Mueller had the time, money and resources needed to conduct his 22-month inquiry.
Democrats have accused Barr, the top U.S. law enforcement official, of trying to protect President Donald Trump. Barr defended the way he dealt with the report’s release and redactions made by the Justice Department removing parts of the document to protect sensitive information.
Barr, named as attorney general by Trump after the Republican president fired his predecessor Jeff Sessions, also told the panel he believed Russia and other countries were still a threat to interfere in future U.S. elections.
Barr noted that he had told the committee during his confirmation hearing before becoming attorney general that he would make as much of the report available to the public and Congress as possible under the law. “This has been done,” Barr said.
At the outset of the hearing, Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, a Republican, said the report showed that Congress should focus on protecting the coming 2020 election, in which Trump is seeking re-election, from foreign interference after Russian meddling in the 2016 race.
“My takeaway from this report is we’ve got a lot to do to defend democracy against Russians and other bad actors,” Graham said.
Democrats on the Senate-led panel began to grill Barr in his first appearance before lawmakers since he released the 448-page report on April 18.
“Contrary to declarations of total and complete exoneration, the special counsel’s report contained substantial evidence of misconduct,” said Senator Dianne Feinstein, the committee’s top Democrat.
It marks first time a member of the Trump administration is testifying about the contents of Mueller’s report, which detailed extensive contacts between Trump’s campaign and Moscow and the campaign’s expectation that it would benefit from Russia’s actions. The report also detailed a series of actions Trump took to try to impede the investigation.
Mueller concluded that the evidence was insufficient to show a criminal conspiracy. Mueller did not exonerate Trump of the crime of obstruction of justice. Barr and the Justice Department’s No. 2 official, Rod Rosenstein, then determined there was insufficient evidence to establish that the president committed obstruction of justice.
Also on Wednesday, the Democratic chairman of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee said an agreement had been reached to have Mueller testify to Congress on the probe. Representative Jerry Nadler told reporters the agreement was for Mueller to testify sometime in May, but that a specific date had yet to be agreed upon.
Barr has said that he will not block Mueller from testifying.
A congressional subpoena deadline for the Justice Department to provide lawmakers with an unredacted copy of Mueller’s report expired at 10 a.m. EDT (1400 GMT). It was not immediately clear whether the Justice Department Nadler and sought underlying evidence from the Mueller probe as well as the full report.
Mueller complained that Barr did not “fully capture the context, nature and substance of this Office’s work” shortly after Barr released a four-page letter in March stating the inquiry’s main conclusions. The letter, first reported by the Washington Post, was released on Wednesday.
Democratic lawmakers, already upset at Barr’s handling of the report, reacted furiously, with Senator Mark Warner saying Barr “has lost all credibility.” Four Senate Democrats asked the Justice Department’s inspector general in a letter on Tuesday to investigate how Barr had rolled out the report.
Jerrold Nadler, the Democratic chairman of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, said an agreement has been reached to have Mueller testify to Congress on his investigation. Nadler told reporters the agreement was for Mueller to testify sometime in May, but that a specific date had yet to be agreed upon.
Trump, ahead of the hearing, wrote a series of tweets focusing on the fact that Mueller found there was not enough evidence to charge the Republican president with criminal obstruction.
“NO COLLUSION, NO OBSTRUCTION. Besides, how can you have Obstruction when not only was there No Collusion (by Trump), but the bad actions were done by the ‘other’ side?” the president wrote.
Some Democrats have said Barr acted improperly by ruling out obstruction of justice charges against the president and by praising the White House in a news conference shortly before the report’s release, accusing him of acting like Trump’s lawyer rather than the top American law enforcement official.
Democrats are now debating whether the report serves as a suitable basis to begin impeachment proceedings in Congress to try to remove Trump from office. Democrats control the House of Representatives, which would start any such effort, while Trump’s fellow Republicans control the Senate, which would have to vote to remove the president.
Republicans, including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, have questioned whether the FBI overstepped its authority by monitoring Trump aides who were suspected of being potential Russian agents during the campaign. Barr has said he would look into the matter.
Barr is also due to testify before the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday. Democrats who control the committee and the Justice Department are in disagreement over the format of the hearing.
Democrats want Barr to face extended questioning from staff lawyers once the customary round of questioning by lawmakers is complete, and sit for a closed-door session to discuss redacted portions of Mueller’s report.
The Justice Department objected because witnesses traditionally do not face questions from committee staff.
The House Judiciary committee has voted to add an additional hour of questioning for tomorrow’s scheduled hearing with Barr.
(Reporting by Andy Sullivan and David Morgan; Writing by Andy Sullivan and James Oliphant; Editing by Peter Cooney and Will Dunham)