Politifact: Senate Democrats accuse William Barr of lying to Congress about Mueller’s reaction. Did he?

Author: John Kruzel / Politifact
Attorney General William Barr is sworn in to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 1, 2019, on the Mueller Report. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee repeatedly pressed Attorney General William Barr to explain earlier statements to Congress in light of newly published grievances from Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

The night before the hearing, media reports revealed that Mueller sent Barr a letter on March 27 taking issue with Barr’s initial portrayal of the special counsel’s report. Mueller’s letter expressed concern that Barr’s summary had failed to “fully capture the context, nature and substance of this Office’s work and conclusions.”

Mueller’s frustrated message seemed at odds with Barr’s testimony last month, when Barr downplayed media reports that he and Mueller disagreed over the attorney general’s depiction.

“You lied to Congress,” Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, told Barr on May 1. “You knew you lied. And now, we know.”

Challenged by multiple senators along these lines, Barr said he had talked to Mueller by phone, and the special counsel told him nothing was inaccurate in his memo.

Still, we now know Barr’s earlier testimony didn’t tell the whole story: Barr knew of Mueller’s frustration with the summary, and he didn’t share it when asked.

Mueller sent letter before Barr’s hearings

Barr’s four-page summary sought to distill the “principal conclusions” of Mueller’s nearly two-year probe.

In his memo, Barr said Mueller did not establish the Trump campaign criminally conspired with Russia. And while the special counsel declined to say if the president had obstructed justice, Barr and his deputy determined Trump had not done so.

Days later, Mueller wrote Barr a letter stating that the attorney general had failed to adequately reflect his report.

“The summary letter the Department sent to Congress and released to the public … did not fully capture the context, nature and substance of this Office’s work and conclusions,” Mueller said in his March 27 letter. “There is now public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation.”

It’s not clear from Mueller’s letter exactly which aspects of Barr’s memo he objected to. But the fact that the special counsel’s view diverged from Barr’s backs up earlier media reporting.

On April 4, the New York Times and Washington Post reported that members of the special counsel team were frustrated by Barr’s portrayal, and that the actual findings were more troubling for Trump than the attorney general had let on.

About a week later, Barr was called to testify before a House and Senate committee. In both hearings, he was asked about friction between him and Mueller.

Here’s the back-and-forth between Barr and Rep. Charlie Crist, D-Fla., during the April 9 hearing before the House Appropriations Committee:

Crist: “Reports have emerged recently, general, that members of the special counsel’s team are frustrated at some level with the limited information included in your March 24 letter, that it does not adequately or accurately, necessarily, portray the report’s findings. Do you know what they’re referencing with that?”

Barr: “No, I don’t. I think, I suspect that they probably wanted more put out. But in my view, I was not interested in putting out summaries or trying to summarize because I think any summary — regardless of who prepares it — not only runs the risk of being underinclusive or overinclusive but also would trigger a lot of discussion and analysis that really should await everything coming out at once.”

The Democratic senators quoted that exchange at several points in the May 1 hearing. Barr’s explanation for not disclosing the letter was artful — he pointed out that Crist asked him about Mueller’s team, not Mueller himself.

“I talked directly to Bob Mueller, not members of his team,” Barr said. “And even though I did not know what was being referred to, and Mueller had never told me that the expression of the findings was inaccurate, but I did then volunteer that I thought they were talking about the desire to have more information put out, but it wasn’t my purpose to put out more information.”

Leahy accused the attorney general of intentionally creating a false impression during his exchange with Crist.

“Mr. Barr,” he said, “I feel your answer was purposefully misleading, and I think others do, too.”

Barr said he spoke on the phone with Mueller after receiving his letter, and the special counsel assured him he didn’t think Barr’s characterization of the principal findings was inaccurate.

“My view of events was that there was a lot of criticism of the special counsel for the ensuing few days, and on Thursday (March 28) I got this letter,” Barr said. “And when I talked to the special counsel about the letter, my understanding was his concern was not the accuracy of the statement of the findings in my letter but that he wanted more out there to provide additional context to explain his reasoning on why he didn’t reach a decision on obstruction.”

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., characterized Barr’s responses as “masterful hairsplitting.”

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