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Barr decided to clear Trump of obstruction before reading Mueller’s report

"We had done a lot of thinking about these issues even before we got the report."

Attorney General William Barr testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee May 1, 2019 in Washington, DC. Barr testified on the Justice Department's investigation of Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election. (Photo credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Attorney General William Barr testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee May 1, 2019 in Washington, DC. Barr testified on the Justice Department's investigation of Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election. (Photo credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Attorney General William Barr told lawmakers on Wednesday that he had already made the decision to clear President Donald Trump of obstruction before reading or receiving special counsel Robert Mueller’s final report on the Russia investigation.

Barr’s comments came during an exchange with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) in a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Whitehouse inquired as to when Barr had reached the decision not to pursue any charges against Trump, despite the fact that Mueller’s report outlined at least 10 instances involving the president that may have constituted criminal obstruction.

“You said that on March 5, Mr. Mueller came to you and said that he was going to not make a decision on obstruction,” Whitehouse said. “… On March 24, you sent out a letter describing your decision. Somewhere between March 5 and March 24, you made that decision. When was that?”

Barr said he and Mueller had “started talking about it” on March 5, and that “there had already been a lot of discussions prior to March 5 involving the deputy [attorney general], the principle associate deputy, and the office of legal counsel that had dealings with the special counsel’s office.”

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“They had knowledge of a number of the episodes and some of the thinking of the special counsel’s office,” Barr said. “So right after March 5, we started discussing what the implications of this were.”

Pressed on when he actually reached a conclusion not to charge Trump with obstruction, Barr replied, “Probably on Sunday, March 24.”

Whitehouse then asked when Barr had received Mueller’s report, which was made public last month. Barr said he had received it on March 22.

“Do I correctly infer you made that decision then between [March] 22 and the 24?” Whitehouse asked.

“Well, we had had a lot of discussions about it before [March] 22, but the final decision was made on [March] 24,” Barr said. “[The Office of Legal Counsel] had done a lot of thinking about these issues even before we got the report. And even before March 5. … The department had been in regular contact with Mueller’s people.”

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Earlier in the hearing, Barr also stated in response to questions from Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) that he had decided not to charge Trump with obstruction, despite not having seen the “underlying evidence” in Mueller’s report. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein did not view the underlying evidence prior to weighing in on the decision either, he said.

“We accepted the statements in the report and the characterization of the evidence as true,” he said. “…This is not a mysterious process. In the Department of Justice, we have cross-memos and declination memos every day coming up, and we don’t go and look at the underlying evidence.”

Barr’s comments come as the attorney general faces heavy criticism by those who believe he is acting as Trump’s defense attorney and running interference for the president.

On March 24, shortly after Mueller concluded his nearly two-year long investigation, Barr delivered his summary of Mueller’s final report, claiming it fully exonerated Trump of any wrongdoing.

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On Tuesday, however, The Washington Post and The New York Times reported that Mueller had expressed concern over Barr’s summary, stating in least two letters addressed to the attorney general on March 25 and 27 that Barr had not captured the full context or nature of his findings.

While Mueller did not find evidence of criminal coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 election, he did detail extensive ties between the campaign and Russian officials, and at least 10 instances involving the president that may have constituted obstruction of justice.

Nonetheless, Barr continued to describe the report as a vindication of the president.

When asked on Wednesday whether Barr had notes from his phone conversation with Mueller, following the special counsel’s letters detailing his concerns, Barr said yes. However, he declined to provide those notes to lawmakers.

“Why should you have them?” he said.