Attorney General William Barr responded to special counsel Robert Mueller's first public remarks about his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election by asserting that "as a matter of law, many of the instances [in the report] would not amount to obstruction."
"As a matter of law?" CBS News chief legal correspondent Jan Crawford asked Barr in her exclusive interview with the nation's top law enforcer.
"As a matter of law. In other words, we didn't agree with the legal analysis — a lot of the legal analysis in the report," Barr responded. "It did not reflect the views of the department. It was the views of a particular lawyer or lawyers, and so we applied what we thought was the right law."
Barr's explanation contradicts the special counsel, who told the American people Wednesday that he could not charge President Donald Trump with a crime due to a "longstanding" Department of Justice policy, which prevents a sitting executive from being indicted. Mueller made it clear that he could not exonerate the president's name.
"We did not, however, make a determination as to whether the president did commit a crime," Mueller said at his press conference, citing the Justice Department's policy that a president "cannot be charged with a federal crime while he is in office. That is unconstitutional. Even if the charge is kept under seal and hidden from public view, that too is prohibited."
"If we had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so," Mueller added.
Mueller's remarks followed the controversial release of a four-page summary of Mueller's report written by Barr, who determined the president had not obstructed justice. Democrats believe Barr inappropriately claimed the president had not committed obstruction, despite a wealth of evidence laid out by Mueller in his 448-page report. Some prosecutors who worked for the special counsel also claimed the attorney general did not adequately represent their findings, telling associates the report was more damning for Trump than Barr had indicated.
When questioned about this by Crawford, Barr explained that he "was trying to state the bottom line." The attorney general also pointed out that Mueller, while having outlined potential episodes of obstruction, had chosen not made a conclusion about them.
"And the bottom line was that Bob Mueller identified some episodes. He did not reach a conclusion," Barr told Crawford. "He provided both sides of the issue, and he — his conclusion was he wasn't exonerating the president, but he wasn't finding a crime either."
Asked if Mueller would be allowed to testify before Congress as House Democrats seeks more answers about the special counsel's redacted report, which is the version in their hands, Barr left the possibility open.
"It's up to Bob, but I think the line he's drawing, which is that he's going to stick what he said in the report, is the proper line for any department official," Barr said.
Noting that he has not spoken publicly during his 22-month long investigation into Russia's election interference, alleged ties between the Trump campaign and Moscow and whether the president obstructed justice, Mueller said Wednesday that he was "speaking out today because our investigation is complete. The attorney general has made the report on our investigation largely public."
Mueller added that he was "formally closing the special counsel's office, and as well, I'm resigning from the Department of Justice to return to private life." Mueller added that his 448-page report, released with redactions in April, "speaks for itself."
Mueller has been caught in the center of a feud between the Trump administration and Democrats in Congress, who want to hear from him about his nearly two-year investigation. The special counsel concluded there was no conspiracy on behalf of the Trump campaign to coordinate with Russia to influence the outcome of the election, but he did not reach a conclusion as to whether the president attempted to impede the investigation. Trump appeared to tout Mueller's remarks as an exoneration of his name, writing on Twitter: "Nothing changes from the Mueller report. There was insufficient evidence and therefore, in our Country, a person is innocent. The case is closed! Thank you!"
After the redacted version of Mueller's report was released late last month, House Democrats immediately sought access to the entire text and underlying evidence. Trump has refused to cooperate and vowed to fight all subpoenas issued by Democrats, throwing a wrench into their oversight efforts on a variety of issues, including foreign election interference, alleged mismanagement in the White House security clearance procedures, the president's finances and his immigration policies.
Since the Democrats seized control of the House of Representatives in January, the White House has faced a barrage of subpoenas, demands to testify before a host of congressional panels and letters seeking a flurry of documents. The Trump administration has often ignored congressional requests for documents and witnesses, calling the demands an unconstitutional infringement of the president's powers.
The executive branch's attempts to push back against congressional inquiries targeting the White House have led some Democrats to contemplate new ways to compel current and former West Wing aides to acquiesce to their demands. Some Democrats and one Republican, Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, have begun calling for an impeachment inquiry.
Trump announced last week that he has given his attorney general full authority to declassify and publicly disclose information about the origins of the Russia investigation. The move prompted Democrats to accuse Trump of attempting to divert attention from Mueller's findings, whose probe continues critical questions that remain unanswered.
House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff, D-Calif., has claimed Trump and Barr are plotting to "weaponize law enforcement and classified information against their political enemies," while Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., has charged that Barr has "used his position to sell the president's false narrative to the American people."
The attorney general also failed to comply with a subpoena this month to turn over Mueller's full report and underlying evidence, material which members of the House Judiciary Committee say they need to conduct an obstruction of justice investigation into the president. Barr advised Trump earlier this month to assert executive privilege over Mueller's findings, warning Democrats their demands were asking him to break the law.