Under pressure from Democrats, Attorney General William Barr on Wednesday defended his decision to clear President Donald Trump of criminal obstruction of justice by attempting to impede Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Russia inquiry and criticized Mueller for not reaching a conclusion of his own on the issue.
Barr, the top US law enforcement official, faced sharp questions from Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee on why he decided after receiving the report from Mueller in March to conclude that the president had not unlawfully sought to obstruct the 22-month investigation.
"We felt that .. the government would not be able to establish obstruction," Barr said, under questioning by Senator Dianne Feinstein, the committee's top Democrat.
Democrats have accused Barr of trying to protect Trump. Barr defended the way he dealt with the report's release, redactions made by the Justice Department removing parts of the document to protect sensitive information, and his ultimate conclusion that Trump did not obstruct justice.
Barr was asked specifically about the report's finding that Trump directed then-White House Counsel Don McGahn to ask the department's No. 2 official Rod Rosenstein to fire Mueller over the special counsel's alleged conflicts of interest. McGahn told Mueller's investigators that he refused to carry out the president's request.
Barr said Trump believed "he never outright directed the firing of Mueller."
"We did not think in this case that the government could show corrupt intent," Barr said.
Barr told Feinstein, "There is a distinction between saying to someone, 'Go fire him, go fire Mueller,' and saying, 'Have him removed based on conflict. ... The difference between them is if you remove someone for a conflict of interest, then there would be - presumably - another person appointed."
Feinstein, sounding unconvinced, responded, "Wouldn't you have to have in this situation an identifiable conflict that makes sense, or else doesn't it just become a fabrication?"
Barr was also critical of Mueller for not reaching a conclusion himself on whether Trump obstructed the probe.
"I think that if he felt that he shouldn't go down the path of making a traditional prosecutorial decision, then he shouldn't have investigated," Barr said.
It was Barr's his first appearance before lawmakers since he released the 448-page report on April 18.
"Contrary to declarations of total and complete exoneration, the special counsel's report contained substantial evidence of misconduct," Feinstein said.
Barr also maintained that Mueller had the time, money and resources needed to conduct his 22-month inquiry.
"As you see, Bob Mueller was allowed to complete his work as he saw fit," Barr said.
Barr, named as attorney general by Trump after the Republican president fired his predecessor Jeff Sessions, also told the panel he believed Russia and other countries were still a threat to interfere in future US elections.
It marked the first time a member of the Trump administration testified about the contents of Mueller's report, which detailed extensive contacts between Trump's campaign and Moscow and the campaign's expectation that it would benefit from Russia's actions. The report also detailed a series of actions Trump took to try to impede the investigation.
Mueller concluded that the evidence was insufficient to show a criminal conspiracy. Mueller did not exonerate Trump of the crime of obstruction of justice. Barr has said that he and Rosenstein then determined there was insufficient evidence to establish that the president committed obstruction of justice.
Committee Republicans did not focus on Trump's conduct but rather on what they saw as the FBI's improper surveillance during the election of Trump aides they suspected of being Russian agents, as well as on the Kremlin's election meddling.
At the outset of the hearing, Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, a Republican, said the report showed that Congress should focus on protecting the coming 2020 election, in which Trump is seeking re-election, from foreign interference after Russian meddling in the 2016 race.
"My takeaway from this report is we've got a lot to do to defend democracy against Russians and other bad actors," Graham said.
A congressional subpoena deadline for the Justice Department to provide lawmakers with an unredacted copy of Mueller's report expired at 10 a.m. EDT (1400 GMT). The House Judiciary Committee sought the full report and underlying evidence from the Mueller probe.
Mueller complained that Barr did not "fully capture the context, nature and substance of this Office's work" shortly after Barr released a four-page letter in March stating the inquiry's main conclusions. The letter, first reported by the Washington Post, was released on Wednesday.
Democratic lawmakers, already upset at Barr's handling of the report, reacted furiously, with Senator Mark Warner saying Barr "has lost all credibility." Four Senate Democrats asked the Justice Department's inspector general in a letter on Tuesday to investigate how Barr had rolled out the report.
Jerrold Nadler, the Democratic chairman of the US House Judiciary Committee, said an agreement has been reached to have Mueller testify to Congress on his investigation. Nadler told reporters the agreement was for Mueller to testify sometime in May, but that a specific date had yet to be agreed upon.
Trump, ahead of the hearing, wrote a series of tweets focusing on the fact that Mueller found there was not enough evidence to charge the Republican president with criminal obstruction.
"NO COLLUSION, NO OBSTRUCTION. Besides, how can you have Obstruction when not only was there No Collusion (by Trump), but the bad actions were done by the 'other' side?" the president wrote.
Some Democrats have said Barr acted improperly by ruling out obstruction of justice charges against the president and by praising the White House in a news conference shortly before the report's release, accusing him of acting like Trump's lawyer rather than the top American law enforcement official.
Democrats are now debating whether the report serves as a suitable basis to begin impeachment proceedings in Congress to try to remove Trump from office. Democrats control the House of Representatives, which would start any such effort, while Trump's fellow Republicans control the Senate, which would have to vote to remove the president.
Barr is also due to testify before the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday. Democrats who control the committee and the Justice Department are in disagreement over the format of the hearing.
Democrats want Barr to face extended questioning from staff lawyers once the customary round of questioning by lawmakers is complete, and sit for a closed-door session to discuss redacted portions of Mueller's report.
The Justice Department objected because witnesses traditionally do not face questions from committee staff.
The House Judiciary committee has voted to add an additional hour of questioning for tomorrow's scheduled hearing with Barr.