Is an Attorney General Independent or Political? Barr Rekindles a Debate

WASHINGTON — Attorney General William P. Barr said during his confirmation hearing in January that serving in his future post was “not the same” as representing President Trump and pledged to make law enforcement decisions based only on facts and the law — not politics.

But his handling of the report by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, has called that vow into question. On Wednesday, Mr. Barr defended his actions before the Senate Judiciary Committee, even as he put forward an interpretation of the evidence in a favorable light for Mr. Trump.

Mr. Barr’s dueling performances underscored tensions inherent in the role of the attorney general, pitting the ideal that the nation’s top law enforcement official should be independent of politics and enforce a neutral understanding of the rule of law against the reality that he or she is politically appointed and part of any administration’s team.

As Democrats criticized Mr. Barr, he exuded an air of impassive confidence and suggested that their anger at him stemmed only from a misguided desire to use the legal system to achieve their political goal of ousting Mr. Trump from the White House.

“No, I didn’t exonerate” Mr. Trump of obstruction, Mr. Barr said at one point. “I said that we did not believe there was sufficient evidence to establish an obstruction offense, which is the job of the Justice Department.”

He suggested Democrats shift their focus to the presidential election: “That’s a very democratic process. But we’re out of it, and we have to stop using the criminal justice process as a political weapon.”

But even as Mr. Barr urged a high standard before accusing political opponents of a crime, Democrats accused him of putting his finger too much on the opposite end of that scale — acting more like a White House counsel, who helps the president work through legal policy issues to achieve his agenda, or even a personal lawyer, who mounts a vigorous defense against any accusations of wrongdoing.

“You’ve chosen to be the president’s lawyer,” said Senator Mazie K. Hirono, Democrat of Hawaii.

How Mr. Barr has approached his responsibilities — and whether he can be trusted by Americans of all political stripes to use his power as the nation’s top law enforcement official evenhandedly — was one of the main focuses of the hearing. Lawmakers pressed Mr. Barr about his March 24 letter to Congress in which he purported to describe the bottom-line conclusions of Mr. Mueller’s report, weeks before he allowed lawmakers and the public to read a redacted version of the actual document.

Did Mr. Barr use his powers neutrally, giving an honest broker’s account of Mr. Mueller’s findings to tell the public what it needed to know while the process of redacting certain portions of the actual report unfolded? Or did he abuse them to distort public understanding in a way that created a more favorable impression for the president and allow that version of events to harden?

The report gave Mr. Barr’s critics fodder to accuse him of using his role to do the president a political favor. As the recipient of Mr. Mueller’s report, Mr. Barr was in a position to put forth a sanitized version — using many of Mr. Mueller’s words out of context in a way that made the president look better.

For example, Mr. Barr quoted a fragment of one of Mr. Mueller’s sentences about how the evidence did not prove there had been any agreement between the campaign and Russia, but omitted a lead-in about how the Trump campaign had many contacts with Russians and had welcomed Russian intervention.

And while Mr. Mueller’s investigators wrote about several actions by Mr. Trump that seemed to meet the criteria for obstruction, while stopping short of deciding whether to accuse Mr. Trump of that crime because the Justice Department has said sitting presidents cannot be indicted, Mr. Barr explained none of that. He simply declared that Mr. Mueller had made no call, leaving it to the attorney general to decide that the evidence did not support obstruction charges.

Still, in other ways Mr. Barr’s performance has not lived up to critics’ fears about him. During his confirmation hearing, Democrats expressed worries that he would invoke his broad view of executive power to tell Mr. Trump that the Constitution puts him, as president, above the law. Mr. Barr has written that obstruction laws cannot cover a president who abuses his official powers to impede an investigation, and argued for a sweeping view of a president’s authority as commander in chief.

Against that backdrop, it was notable on Wednesday that he invoked no constitutional theories to justify clearing Mr. Trump of obstructing justice. Rather, he interpreted the evidence in a light favorable to Mr. Trump, arguing that it was ambiguous and fell short of proof beyond a reasonable doubt that any of his actions met the criteria for obstruction.

But Mr. Barr at times seemed to channel the vantage point of a defense lawyer for Mr. Trump that was at odds with the image of an attorney general who enforces the law dispassionately. Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota and a former prosecutor, pressed him to explain how it was not obstruction of justice for Mr. Trump to dangle a pardon before his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, while urging him not to “flip” and cooperate with investigators.

“What the president’s lawyers would say is that the president’s statements about ‘flipping’ are quite clear and express and uniformly the same, which is by ‘flipping,’ he meant succumbing to pressure on unrelated cases to lie and compose in order to get lenient treatment,” Mr. Barr said. “It’s a discouraging ‘flipping’ in that sense. It’s not obstruction.”

Before Mr. Barr’s testimony, the Justice Department released a letter that Mr. Mueller had written to the attorney general on March 27, complaining that Mr. Barr’s letter to Congress three days earlier had inadequately described his investigation’s findings and was causing public confusion. Mr. Mueller urged the Justice Department to immediately release the report’s two executive summaries.

That revelation put new light on Mr. Barr’s handling of his role when he testified before a House subcommittee on April 4, a day after The New York Times reported that some members of Mr. Mueller’s team were unhappy about his portrayal of their work. Asked then whether he knew what they were frustrated about, he said he did not — and said nothing about Mr. Mueller’s letter.

On Wednesday, Mr. Barr rejected accusations that he had been misleading, arguing that complaints by Mr. Mueller’s subordinates to others were different from Mr. Mueller’s letter asking him to put out more information.

“Masterful hairsplitting,” said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island and another former prosecutor.

Mr. Barr was unapologetic about the fact that being attorney general meant that it was his call to reject Mr. Mueller’s request to immediately put out the summaries and instead wait several weeks and then release the document at once.

Mr. Mueller’s “work concluded when he sent his report to the attorney general.”

“At that point, it was my baby,” he said, adding, “It was my decision how and when to make it public, not Bob Mueller’s.”

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