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US attorney general expected to defend handling of Mueller report

William Barr is set to face questions before a US senate committee.

US attorney general William Barr (AP)
US attorney general William Barr (AP)

US attorney general William Barr is to face questions before a US senate committee for the first time since releasing special counsel Robert Mueller’s report into alleged Russian collusion.

Mr Barr is expected to defend his actions before Democrats who accuse him of spinning the investigation’s findings in US president Donald Trump’s favour.

Mr Barr’s appearance before the senate judiciary committee is expected to highlight the partisan schism around Mr Mueller’s report and the American justice department’s handling of it.

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Mr Barr faced accusations he was acting as the president’s protector (AP)

It will give the attorney general his most extensive opportunity to explain the department’s actions, including a press conference held before the report’s release, and for him to repair a reputation bruised by allegations that he is the president’s protector.

A major focus of the hearing is likely to be the revelation that Mr Mueller expressed frustration to Mr Barr, in a letter to the justice department and in a phone call, with how the conclusions of his investigation were being portrayed.

Mr Barr has also been invited to appear on Thursday before the Democratic-led House judiciary panel, but the justice department said he would not testify if the committee insisted on having its lawyers question the attorney general.

His appearance will be before a Republican-led committee chaired by a close ally of the president, senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who is expected to focus on concerns that the early days of the FBI’s Russia investigation were tainted by law enforcement bias against Mr Trump.

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The senate judiciary committee hearing room ahead of the meeting (AP)

Democrats are likely to press Mr Barr on his statements and actions in the last six weeks, which have unnerved them.

The tense relations are notable given how Mr Barr breezed through his confirmation process, picking up support from a few Democrats and offering reassuring words about the justice department’s independence and the importance of protecting the special counsel’s investigation.

The first hint of discontent surfaced last month when Mr Barr issued a four-page statement that summarised what he said were the main conclusions of the Mueller report.

In the letter, Mr Barr revealed that he and deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein had cleared Mr Trump of obstruction of justice after Mr Mueller and his team found evidence on both sides of the question, but did not reach a conclusion.

Mr Barr is likely to defend himself by noting how he released the report on his own, even though he did not have to under the special counsel regulations, and that doing so fulfilled a pledge he made to be as transparent as the law allowed.

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There are reports that special counsel Robert Mueller raised concerns over the way his conclusions had been represented (AP)

He may say that he wanted to move quickly to give the public a summary of Mr Mueller’s main findings, as the justice department spent weeks redacting more sensitive information from the report.

After the letter’s release, Mr Barr raised eyebrows when he told a congressional committee that he believed the Trump campaign had been spied upon, a common talking point of the president and his supporters.

An insider said Mr Barr, a former CIA employee, did not mean spying in a necessarily inappropriate way and was simply referring to intelligence collection activities.

He also equivocated on the question of whether Mr Mueller’s investigation was a witch hunt, saying someone who feels wrongly accused would reasonably view an investigation that way.

That was a stark turnabout from his confirmation hearing, when he said he did not believe Mr Mueller would ever be on a witch hunt.

Then came Mr Barr’s April 18 press conference to announce the release of the Mueller report later that morning.

He repeated about a half dozen times that Mr Mueller’s investigation had found no evidence of collusion between the campaign and Russia, though the special counsel took pains to note in his report that “collusion” was not a legal term, and also pointed out the multiple contacts that took place between the Trump campaign and Russia.

In remarks that resembled some of Mr Trump’s own claims, Mr Barr praised the White House for giving Mr Mueller’s team “unfettered access” to documents and witnesses.

He suggested the president had the right to be upset by the investigation, given his “sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents, and fuelled by illegal leaks”.

PA

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