By Andy Sullivan and Sarah N. Lynch
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - 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.
In his first congressional testimony since releasing a redacted version of the 448-page report on April 18, Barr also deflected complaints made by Mueller in a letter to him over how the attorney general had handled the disclosure of the special counsel's conclusions.
During the sometimes testy hearing, Barr faced sharp questions from Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats on why he decided after receiving the document from Mueller in March to conclude that the president had not unlawfully sought to obstruct the 22-month investigation.
"I don't think the government had a prosecutable case," Barr, the top U.S. law enforcement official and a Trump appointee, testified.
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.
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's report concluded that there was insufficient evidence to show a criminal conspiracy. Mueller opted not to make a conclusion on whether Trump committed obstruction of justice, but pointedly did not exonerate him. Barr has said he and Rosenstein then determined based on Mueller's findings that there was insufficient evidence to establish that the president had committed criminal obstruction.
Barr was asked specifically about the report's finding that in June 2017 Trump directed White House counsel Don McGahn to tell the Justice Department's No. 2 official, Rod Rosenstein, that Mueller had conflicts of interest and must be removed. McGahn did not carry out the order. Rosenstein had appointed Mueller the prior month.
Barr seemed to minimize the incident and 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 Senator Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the committee, "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?"
'INTENTION WAS VERY CLEAR'
Democratic Senator Dick Durbin was more blunt.
"I think the president's intention was very clear. He wanted this to end," Durbin said, referring to the investigation that cast a cloud over his presidency.
Barr said it will be Trump's decision whether McGahn will be allowed to testify before Congress on the matter.
Contrary to Trump's declarations of total and complete exoneration, the special counsel's report contained substantial evidence of misconduct, Feinstein said.
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.
Democrats asked Barr about a letter sent by Mueller to him in which the special counsel complained that Barr's March 24 letter to lawmakers stating the inquiry's main conclusions did not "fully capture the context, nature and substance of this Office's work."
Barr told the committee Mueller was unhappy with the way the conclusions were being characterized in the media, not his account of the conclusions. "I asked him if he was suggesting that the March 24 letter was inaccurate. He said, 'no,' but that the press reporting had been inaccurate," Barr said.
Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy said Barr misled Congress when he testified in April he did not know whether Mueller was happy with his initial characterization of his findings.
"I feel your answer was purposely misleading, and I feel that others do, too," Leahy said.
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, 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 U.S. elections.
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.
To that end, Barr defended his accusation in a previous congressional hearing this month that American intelligence agencies engaged in "spying" on Trump campaign figures amid worries over their contacts with Russia.
He said "spying" is "a good English word" without a pejorative meaning and that he would not back off his language, which echoed Trump's complaints that the Justice Department had engaged in wrongdoing toward his campaign.
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 Barr's department to hand over an unredacted copy of Mueller's report expired on Wednesday morning. The House Judiciary Committee sought the full report and underlying evidence.
Trump, ahead of the hearing, wrote a series of tweets.
"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.
The Democratic-led House Judiciary Committee voted on Wednesday to adopt an aggressive questioning format for a hearing set for Thursday with Barr. A resolution, adopted by a party line vote, allows committee lawyers to question Barr during an extra hour of proceedings, on top of a traditional hearing format that provides each lawmaker on the panel with five minutes for questions and remarks.
The Justice Department objected because witnesses traditionally do not face questions from committee staff.
(Reporting by Andy Sullivan, Sarah N. Lynch and David Morgan; Writing by Andy Sullivan and James Oliphant; Editing by Will Dunham)