Attorney General William Barr launched a strident political defense of the president Thursday shortly before releasing special counsel Robert Mueller’s long-awaited report.
“In assessing the president’s actions discussed in the report, it is important to bear in mind the context. President [Donald] Trump faced an unprecedented situation,” Barr told reporters in a press conference. “As he entered into office, and sought to perform his responsibilities as president, federal agents and prosecutors were scrutinizing his conduct before and after taking office, and the conduct of some of his associates.”
Barr reiterated two key points from his March 24 letter to Congress: Mueller did not conclude there was criminal collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign, and the evidence does not show that Trump obstructed justice.
In framing those points, Barr cited the “relentless speculation in the news media” and Trump’s “sincere belief” that his political opponents were behind the Mueller investigation.
“Apart from whether the acts were obstructive, this evidence of non-corrupt motives weighs heavily against any allegation that the president had a corrupt intent to obstruct the investigation,” Barr concluded.
Mueller did not make a determination about whether Trump committed obstruction of justice when he took such actions as firing then-FBI Director James Comey in the midst of the Russia investigation. Instead, it was Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein who cleared Trump on the obstruction front.
It’s an awkward situation for Barr, a former attorney general under President George H. W. Bush who landed back at the top of the Justice Department after Trump fired his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, over the Russia probe.
Trump reportedly berated Sessions in the Oval Office after Mueller’s appointment in May 2017, calling the former attorney general an “idiot” and accusing him of “disloyalty.”
If Trump saw Sessions as a turncoat, he may have seen Barr as a centurion. Barr sent an unsolicited memo to Rosenstein last June criticizing the special counsel’s theories on obstruction of justice. Democrats have called the memo a job interview.
Barr has denied that Trump nominated him because of the memo, but Thursday’s press conference reignited concerns about whether the attorney general is playing politics.
“It was a political defense,” David Dorsen, former assistant chief counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee, said of Barr’s comments Thursday. “What Barr did was, he was a shill for the president. He reminded me of Sean Spicer, who would say anything Trump told him to say,” he said, referring to Trump’s former press secretary.
Ken Hughes, an expert on Watergate at the University of Virginia, said Barr’s comments on Trump line up with defenses offered by the Nixon White House.
“Richard Nixon also sincerely believed that the Watergate investigation ‘was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents, and fueled by illegal leaks,’” Hughes said, quoting Barr’s morning press conference. “None of that justified obstruction of justice then, and none of it justifies obstruction now.”