WASHINGTON – Flanked by two deputies, Attorney General William Barr stepped to a microphone on the Justice Department's seventh floor Thursday and spoke in the language of the president who appointed him to the job.
Previewing the imminent release of special counsel Robert Mueller's report, the top U.S. law enforcement official declared five times that investigators had found no "collusion" between the Trump campaign and Russia. Once, he even seemed to chide reporters for their "relentless speculation" about President Donald Trump's possible personal wrongdoing — while declaring the president correct in his pushback.
"As he said from the beginning," Barr declared, "there was in fact no collusion."
The news conference was a boon for the president, reinforcing — before the public had read Mueller's actual report — the letter Barr sent to Congress last month announcing that Mueller had not found a conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign, and that he had declined to reach a conclusion on whether Trump had obstructed justice. The president reacted with glee on Twitter and privately told advisers that former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, with whom he famously sparred, would not have done so well, according to White House aides who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity.
But the roughly half-hour, televised event also cemented the view among wary Democrats and some in the legal community that Barr was more politically motivated and protective of Trump than they had realized. In their view, his comments were inaccurate, and they at least seemed to belie the detailed, 448-page account of Mueller's work. Equally troubling: Barr embraced a preferred word of the president — "collusion" — when the special counsel wrote in his report the term was "not a specific offense or theory of liability found in the United States Code, nor is it a term of art in federal criminal law."
"I think it's pretty clear, he's just an extremely partisan attorney general," said Matthew Miller, who was a Justice Department spokesman in the Obama administration. "I can't think of any comparison in modern history to what he's done in the past three-and-a-half weeks."
Barr disputed at the news conference the idea that he was protecting the president, and said he had "no objection" to Mueller himself testifying before Congress to air his side of things.
Asked about the concern — including from a federal judge — that he was fostering suspicion in his handling of Mueller's work, he shot back at a reporter: "I'm not sure what your basis is for saying that I am being generous to the president." When a reporter later asked about the "spinning" of Mueller's work, Barr simply declared "no" and walked off the stage.
At the news conference, Barr revealed for the first time there was disagreement between the Justice Department and the special counsel's office on whether the president obstructed justice, saying he and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein disputed some of Mueller's "legal theories." Barr said he and his deputy stepped in to declare there was not a prosecutable obstruction case against Trump only when Mueller would not say one way or the other.
"The very prosecutorial function and all our powers as prosecutors, including the power to convene grand juries and compulsory process that's involved there is for one purpose and one purpose only. It's to determine, yes or no, was alleged conduct criminal or not criminal," Barr said. "Because the special counsel did not make that decision, we felt the department had to."