Attorney General William P. Barr testified Tuesday that he thinks he will be able to release special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report “within a week,” and that he will color-code redacted information so the public will know why various material is being veiled.
The assertion came during Barr’s appearance before the House Appropriations Committee, where questions about his handling of the report on whether Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign colluded with Russia have speckled what otherwise would have been a routine budget hearing.
Barr had told lawmakers previously that his department was scrubbing the report and that he expected to release it by mid-April.
“This process is going along very well, and my original timetable of being able to release this by mid-April stands, and I think that, from my standpoint, within a week, I will be in a position to release the report to the public,” Barr said.
Barr’s handling of the nearly 400-page document has caused political arguments, with Democrats pressing him to turn it over to lawmakers in full. In his opening statement, Rep. José E. Serrano (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Appropriations Commerce, Justice, Science subcommittee, signaled that the report would be a significant topic of discussion Tuesday.
“We could not hold this hearing without mentioning the elephant in the room,” he said, adding that it would be a “serious blow to our system” if the report is not released in full.
Barr has offered only a four-page synopsis of Mueller’s report — the result of a 22-month investigation — , saying that the special counsel did not find that anyone in Trump’s campaign conspired with Russia to interfere in the election and that Mueller did not reach a conclusion about whether Trump sought to obstruct justice. Barr wrote in that synopsis that he and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein weighed the evidence themselves and determined that they could not make a case that Trump obstructed justice.
Democrats, in particular, have criticized Barr’s bare-bones description of Mueller’s findings, and some on Mueller’s team have told associates that they are frustrated with the limited information made available about their work.
Barr conceded Tuesday of Mueller’s team, “I suspect that they probably wanted more put out.” But he said he 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 under-inclusive or over-inclusive but also would trigger a lot of discussion and analysis that really should have weighed everything coming out at once.”
He said that Mueller’s team “did not play a role in drafting” his letter to Congress, although he added, “We offered to have Bob review it before putting it out, and he declined”
Barr, who received the report on March 22, said he thought he had to quickly reveal Mueller’s conclusions because the public would not tolerate a weeks-long delay in knowing what the investigation had found.
“From a prosecutor’s standpoint,” he said, “the bottom line is binary, which is charges or no charges.” Barr rejected the assertion that he could have quickly made public the summaries the special counsel’s team prepared because all of the material contains grand jury information, which by law cannot be released.
Barr could mollify some angst when he releases the report, even though some portions will be redacted. He has told lawmakers that he will keep from public view grand jury material, information that could reveal intelligence sources and methods, information that could affect ongoing investigations, and details that would affect the privacy of people “peripheral” to Mueller’s investigation. He said Tuesday that he will color-code the redactions and provide “explanatory notes” so people know why various sections of the report are not being disclosed.
Mueller’s team, Barr said, was “helping us select the information in the report that falls into those four categories.”
“The first pass at this is going to produce a report that makes these redactions based on these four categories, and that is something I am hoping will be available to the public,” Barr said. He said that Congress will not receive the unredacted report when the Justice Department releases it, but that he had “already promised the Judiciary committees” that he would make himself available for interviews and “see if there’s a way we can accommodate” requests for more information.
Barr said that he has no plans to assert executive privilege, which generally a president must do, to mask parts of Mueller’s report — and that he also has no plans to go to a judge and seek the release of grand jury information contained in it. With a court order, it may have been possible for him to release that material to the public. Democrats have been urging Barr to make the case to a judge for an exception to the rules that keep the department from releasing grand jury information to Congress.
“The chairman of the Judiciary Committee is free to go to court if he feels one of those exceptions is applicable,” Barr said. He added, “My intention is not to ask for it at this stage.”
Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee, mindful that their colleagues on the appropriations panel are not as familiar with the nuance of Mueller’s investigation, had provided them with a list of suggested questions for the attorney general, an aide said. Only one member of the subcommittee that questioned Barr on Tuesday also sits on any of the six House committees examining Trump, his finances and his foreign contacts.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.) challenged the attorney general on how he could have synthesized the nearly 400-page Mueller report into a four-page document so quickly, surmising that “your mind must have already been made up.”
Barr pushed back on that, telling Lowey that Rosenstein had long been apprised of the course of Mueller’s inquiry, and that he and Rosenstein had met with Mueller and his team on March 5 to discuss the wind-down of the investigation.
“We had an inkling of what was coming in our direction,” he said.
Barr said that the White House had not reviewed in advance his communications to Congress about the report, but he rebuffed Lowey’s attempt to ask other questions, including whether the White House had seen the report since he sent his summary letter.
“I’ve said what I’m going to say about the report today. I’ve issued three letters about it, and I was willing to discuss the historic information of how the report came to me and my decision on Sunday, but I’ve already laid out the process that is going forward to release these reports hopefully in a week, and I’m not going to say anything more about it,” he said.
When Lowey then pressed him to say whether Trump had been “factually accurate” about claiming “complete and total exoneration,” he similarly declined to engage.
“It’s hard to have that discussion without the contents of the report, isn’t it? And that’s why I suggest we wait until the report is out,” Barr told her.
Barr has told lawmakers that Trump would have the right to assert executive privilege over certain pieces, but because the president had stated publicly that he would defer to the attorney general, Barr said he had no plans to submit Mueller’s work to the White House for a privilege review.
Republicans sought to play down the possibility that the Mueller report might reveal any information to challenge Trump’s assertion that he has been exonerated of colluding with Russia, and they asked Barr whether he would now look into whether the conduct of federal law enforcement officials during that investigation had been inappropriate.
Rep. Robert B. Aderholt (Ala.), the ranking Republican on the subcommittee, said it was unfortunate that “so many of the questions here this morning are going toward a grassy knoll conspiracy theory regarding the Mueller report.” He asked whether the Justice Department would look into whether the FBI should have sought a court order to conduct surveillance on former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.
Barr told lawmakers that the Justice Department’s inspector general would be completing an investigation of how surveillance applications were used in the Russia investigation by “May or June,” and that he hoped would reveal answers. A spokesman for the inspector general did not immediately return a message seeking comment.
“More generally, I am reviewing the conduct of the investigation and trying to get my arms around all the aspects of the counterintelligence investigation that was conducted in the summer of 2016,” Barr said, adding that he would look at the related criminal referrals that Rep. Devin Nunes (Calif.), the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, is planning to send to the department, and determine whether to investigate.
Lawmakers also pressed Barr on other topics — perhaps most notably, his department’s recent decision to back full invalidation of the Affordable Care Act.
In a particularly testy exchange, Rep. Matthew Cartwright (D-Pa.) asked Barr if the Justice Department had conducted an analysis to determine the effect its legal position would have on consumers nationwide — suggesting that if the department won, millions of Americans could experience financial and physical harm.
“When we’re faced with a legal question, we try to base our answer on the law,” Barr replied, adding later, “If you think it’s such an outrageous position, you have nothing to worry about. Let the courts do their job.”
Later, Barr declined to say whether he had advised the Trump White House that the Justice Department should not change its position.
“I’m not going to get into the internal deliberations of the administration on this point,” he said. “I believe that the final decision reached is a legally defensible and reasonable legal position.”
Barr appeared at the hearing Tuesday with Lee Lofthus, the Justice Department’s assistant attorney general for administration. Barr’s opening statement, which was released Monday, made no mention of the special counsel investigation, but instead focused on the reason the hearing was convened: the Justice Department’s budget.
Barr said in the statement that Trump’s $29.2 billion budget proposal for the department in fiscal 2020 “reflects a commitment to the department’s priorities of reducing violent crime, enforcing the nation’s immigration laws, combating the opioid epidemic, and addressing national security threats to this great nation.” He touted the department’s two years of record-breaking prosecutions of violent crime — including prosecuting more people on firearms charges in fiscal 2018 than ever before — as well as its efforts to combat overdose deaths.
Such deaths, Barr said, “may have finally stopped rising,” according to 2017 and 2018 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, although he said the area remains a high priority for the Justice Department.
Barr has said he is able to testify before the Senate and House judiciary committees on May 1 and May 2. They have primary responsibility for inquiring about his handling of the Mueller report. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) wrote Monday on Twitter that he also thinks Mueller should testify at some point.