WASHINGTON - Attorney General William Barr is facing questions from Congress for the first time Wednesday since delivering the results of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into President Donald Trump's campaign and Russian interference in the election that put him in office.
The end of that investigation put the new attorney general in the center of a political crossfire between Democrats who have been skeptical of his handling of the inquiry and Republicans eager to either move on or investigate the special counsel investigation.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., opened the hearing by lauding Mueller and defending the investigation's results.
"Mr. Mueller was the right guy to do this job; he was the right guy with ample resources," Graham said. "After all this time and all this money, Mr. Mueller concluded there was no collusion."
Barr said in prepared remarks ahead of the hearing that the Justice Department's role in that investigation was confined to deciding whether anyone should face criminal charges and that its "work on this matter is at its end."
"From here on, the exercise of responding and reacting to the report is a matter for the American people and the political process," Barr said in the prepared testimony.
The Senate hearing room was packed, but in the opening moments there were no visible protests that have marked other high-profile congressional hearings.
One spectator sat silently wearing a red cap, a familiar accoutrement of Trump supporters, though this hat carried a far different slogan: "Make Obama President Again."
What Barr plans to say: Read his opening statement
Mueller-Barr: Special counsel objected to Barr's letter clearing President Trump of obstruction
Hours before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing was to begin, the Justice Department confirmed that Mueller had privately objected to a letter Barr delivered to Congress in March clearing Trump of having obstructed the special counsel investigation. Mueller said in a March 27 letter that Barr's summary three days earlier "did not fully capture the context, nature and substance of this office's work and conclusions," which led to "public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation."
According to Mueller's letter and a subsequent statement released late Tuesday, the special counsel expressed his differences with Barr at least three times: on March 25, the day after the attorney general released his summary of Mueller's conclusions. He reiterated those concerns in the March 27 letter and the two spoke by telephone March 28.
For weeks, Barr's account had been the only information available to the public about the outcome of an investigation that had captivated Washington for nearly two years. After Mueller's objection to Barr's initial summary was disclosed late Tuesday, some lawmakers said they would question the attorney general about his testimony earlier this month before a Appropriations subcommittee.
In that April 10 testimony Barr said that he was unaware of whether the special counsel disputed the attorney general's summary, clearing the president. The testimony came well after Mueller expressed his objection in a March 27 letter to Barr. "I don't know if Bob Mueller supported my conclusion," Barr told the panel during the April hearing.
The Mueller letter prompted calls Wednesday for Barr's resignation from lawmakers including Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said Barr should resign for misleading Congress. Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island, who is head of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee and a member of the Judiciary Committee scheduled to question Barr on Thursday, also said Barr should resign.
Barr defended his decision to issue a summary of Mueller's conclusions because the "body politic was in a high state of agitation."
"We prepared that (March 24 summary) to release the bottom line conclusions," he said. "We offered Bob Mueller a chance to review the letter before it went out, and he declined."
In a telephone call after Mueller submitted his March 27 letter of objection, Barr said Mueller "wanted more put out."
"He was very clear in what he was not suggesting: that we were misrepresenting his report," Barr said, but that Mueller was concerned about press coverage of the report.
Mueller's full report identified "systematic" efforts by the Kremlin to intercede in the 2016 election by hacking emails and posting disinformation to help Trump win, and detailed how Trump and his aides appeared to welcome that help. But it found no conspiracy between Trump's campaign and Russia, and did not reach a conclusion about whether Trump had sought to obstruct justice.
Trump has said Mueller's 448-page report exonerated him because it did not conclude he had committed a crime.
He complained Wednesday on Twitter that former President Barack Obama should have done something about Russian interference in the election, but didn't. In another post, Trump repeated a frequent mantra: "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 greatest con-job in the history of American Politics!"
Mueller made no decision on whether Trump obstructed justice during the inquiry, but Barr decided no charges were warranted.
In his prepared remarks, Barr defended his handling of the inquiry, saying that he had fulfilled his confirmation hearing pledge that he would allow the special counsel to finish his investigation without interference and that he would release his report to Congress and to the American public.
"The special counsel completed his investigation as he saw fit," Barr said.
Barr went on to defend his March 24 letter disclosing Mueller's "bottom line conclusions," despite Mueller's recently disclosed objections. He compared the letter to a verdict rather than a summary of the report.
"I didn't believe it was in the public interest to let this go on for several weeks," Barr told the committee. "We prepared the letter for that purpose: to state the bottom-line conclusions."
On clearing the president of obstruction, Barr maintained that he and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein "concluded that, under the principles of federal prosecution, the evidence developed by the special counsel would not be sufficient to charge the president with an obstruction-of-justice offense.
"We were frankly surprised that (Mueller) wasn't going to come to a view on obstruction," Barr told the panel. "We did not understand why the special counsel was not reaching a decision. When we pressed him on it, he said the special counsel's office was still reaching" an explanation.
Barr said he "constantly" consulted with Rosenstein to make the ultimate decision on whether president committed a crime. Explaining his final decision, Barr said Trump's obstructive conduct was not related to an underlying crime since Mueller found insufficient evidence to indicate that the president was involved in a conspiracy with the Russian government to tilt the election to Trump.
Asked whether he trusted Mueller, Barr responded, "Yes."
On the question of whether he "felt good" about his decision to clear Trump of obstruction, Barr said: "Absolutely."
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Republicans who lead the committee say the report speaks for itself and that the inquiry should be put to rest.
"For me, it's over," Graham said.
Although Thursday's hearing was staged to review the Justice Department's handling of Mueller's inquiry, Graham offered up a critique of the FBI's investigation of Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server, vowing that he would make that the focus of the Senate's attention.
"This committee is going to look long and hard about how all of this started," Graham said.
But Democrats are eager to ask Barr about his decision on obstruction charges, despite 10 possible episodes that Mueller described in the report. For example, Trump's former White House counsel, Don McGahn, told investigators that Trump ordered him to fire Mueller, a demand that alarmed him so much that he cleaned out his office and prepared to quit. Trump has denied the accusation.
Barr is also scheduled to testify Thursday at the House Judiciary Committee. But that appearance remains under negotiation because Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., proposed to have staff counsel ask some of the questions. The House panel has also subpoenaed McGahn.
Contributing: David Jackson
More about Attorney General William Barr and special counsel Robert Mueller:
AG William Barr warns he could refuse to appear at House hearing on Mueller report, objecting to format
Collusion, obstruction of justice, redactions: How the Mueller report uses these legal terms
Mueller report: Trump's anger over Russia probe may have saved him from obstruction charge
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: AG William Barr faces lawmakers for the first time after release of special counsel Robert Mueller's report