William Barr Explains Finding of No Obstruction on Mueller Probe

Attorney general appears before a Senate panel after letter indicates dispute over characterizing special counsel probe

Mr. Barr said at the Wednesday hearing he was surprised that Mr. Mueller wouldn’t reach a conclusion about obstruction, and he said he conveyed that message to the special counsel in a March 5 briefing. Among other reasons, Mr. Mueller cited a longstanding Justice Department policy against indicting a sitting president. Mr. Barr said he pressed Mr. Mueller for more about his reasoning.

“If he felt he shouldn’t go down a path of making a traditional prosecutive decision then he shouldn’t have investigated,” Mr. Barr said. “That was the time to pull up.”

.. “Fairness concerns counseled against potentially reaching” a judgment that Mr. Trump committed crimes “when no charges can be brought,” Mr. Mueller wrote in the report. Mr. Barr subsequently determined that the evidence Mr. Mueller’s investigation developed was insufficient to establish a crime Mr. Barr said in a March 24 summary of the Mueller findings that he and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein concluded the evidence gathered wasn’t enough to establish an obstruction-of-justice offense.

Opening statements by the chairman and ranking member of the panel reflected the deep partisan divide that has shaped how Mr. Mueller’s report—and Mr. Barr’s characterization of it—has been received.

South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, who chairs the panel, and California Democrat Dianne Feinstein focused on vastly different points in their statements.

Mr. Graham said that the president couldn’t have obstructed justice if there was no underlying crime committed by Mr. Trump’s campaign associates. Mr. Mueller’s probe didn’t establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired with the Russian government.

Attempted obstruction of justice of a crime that never occurred seems to be the new standard around here, to me it doesn’t make any sense,” Mr. Graham said.

Under the law, obstruction doesn’t require a successful effort. Nor does a prosecutor need to prove there was an underlying crime that a suspect was covering up.

Ms. Feinstein took an opposite tack. “Contrary to the declarations of the total and complete exoneration,” the report contained “substantial evidence of misconduct,” Ms. Feinstein said, referring to descriptions in the report that showed how the Trump campaign had welcomed, encouraged, and expected to benefit from Russia’s interference and how Mr. Trump tried to limit or influence the investigation.

In his report, Mr. Mueller cited in part Justice Department guidance as a reason he didn’t pursue obstruction charges.

A centerpiece of the hearing was the letter sent by Mr. Mueller to the attorney general on March 27. The letter, released Wednesday morning, showed that Mr. Mueller twice encouraged Mr. Barr to quickly release a fuller account of his team’s Russia investigation and expressed concerns that Mr. Barr’s early portrayals had failed to capture the nature and context of his team’s work and findings.

“There is now public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation,” Mr. Mueller wrote. “This threatens to undermine a central purpose for which the Department appointed the Special Counsel: to assure full public confidence in the outcome of investigation.”

But Mr. Barr testified Wednesday that, while he asked Mr. Mueller to make redactions in order to hasten the report’s release, he found when he received it on March 22 that it still contained grand jury material that couldn’t be made public. He said he knew it would take weeks to make the edits.

At least two prominent members of Congress have called on the attorney general to resign, and Democrats on the Senate panel are already accusing Mr. Barr of ignoring Mr. Mueller’s letter in an effort to protect Mr. Trump.

After Mr. Mueller sent the letter, he told Mr. Barr in a phone call that nothing in Mr. Barr’s summary was inaccurate or misleading but expressed frustration over the lack of context and resulting news coverage of the case, according to a person familiar with their discussion. Mr. Mueller urged Mr. Barr to release more information.

In his opening remarks, Mr. Graham devoted much of his time to quoting from emails exchanged between an FBI agent and a Justice Department lawyer criticizing Mr. Trump during the 2016 campaign.

Why Mueller Can’t Subpoena Trump

There are significant factual disputes about these episodes, but all involve the president’s exercise of his core constitutional powers as chief executive, including the power to appoint and remove high-level executive-branch officials, to supervise the performance of their duties (as in the Espy case), and to determine law-enforcement priorities. We have argued in these pages that the president cannot obstruct justice by exercising the discretionary powers of his office, especially in determining whether and why to fire high-level presidential appointees like Mr. Comey. According to the two leaked letters from Mr. Trump’s lawyers to Mr. Mueller, they take essentially the same view.

Any prosecution based on Mr. Trump’s exercise of his core constitutional authority would dramatically impair the executive’s status as a coequal branch of government, considering that Congress enjoys immunity under the Speech and Debate Clause while exercising its legislative powers. It would also inject the judiciary into the president’s decision-making process, requiring judges to delve into matters that are inherently political.

Developments over the past year reinforce our view that it would unconstitutionally debilitate the presidency to base an obstruction charge on gainsaying the president’s motives in exercising his core responsibilities. Mr. Trump’s critics have also accused him of obstructing justice by using his pardon power. They claim his pardons of Joe Arpaio, Scooter Libby and Dinesh D’Souza —whom he considers victims of previous political prosecutions—were meant to reassure targets of Mr. Mueller’s probe that they too might be pardoned. Under such logic, a president under investigation could not discharge his constitutional duties at all, including the use of military force overseas—which can always be cast as a “wag the dog” strategy.

..  That independent-counsel investigation did not concern the exercise of presidential authority. They concerned allegations of perjury and obstruction from Mr. Clinton’s personal relationship with a White House intern.

.. Because constitutional considerations were not in play

.. Mr. McGahn spent nearly 30 hours describing the substance of his conversations with Mr. Trump and offering his assessment that the president’s actions were lawful.

With access to the relevant documents and everyone around the president, the special counsel has no material facts left to find.

.. Interviewing or interrogating the president could shed additional light only on his own thoughts and motives—exactly what executive privilege is designed to protect.

.. Mueller knows that losing a subpoena court fight would prolong and delegitimize his investigation. He is unlikely to press the point.