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Attorney General William Barr Battles Democrats Over Redactions Ahead of Mueller Report Release

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 09: U.S. Attorney General William Barr testifies about the Justice Department's FY2020 budget request before the House Appropriations Committee's Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Subcommittee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill April 09, 2019 in Washington, DC. This was the first time …
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KRISTINA WONG

Attorney General William Barr battled with Democrats on Tuesday over the pending release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s final report, as he urged them to wait until all sensitive material was redacted and they continued to call for its full and immediate release.

“Within a week, I’ll be in a position to release the report to the public, and then I will engage with the chairmen of both Judiciary Committees about that report, about any further requests that they have,” Barr told lawmakers at a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing.

Democrats have criticized Barr for not releasing Mueller’s report in full since it was finished on Friday, March 22. Two days after receiving it, on Sunday, March 24, Barr sent a letter to House and Senate Judiciary Committee leaders outlining the report’s principle conclusions.

Barr’s letter announced that Mueller did not establish the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, and that he declined to take a decision on whether President Trump obstructed justice. Barr said he and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein then concluded that there was insufficient evidence for an obstruction crime.

Barr also wrote his “goal and intent is to release as much of the Special Counsel’s report as I can consistent with applicable law, regulations, and Departmental policies.” He later described in a March 29 follow-up letter what kind of material would be redacted and announced he intended to release the report by mid-April, if not sooner.

Nonetheless, Democrats have blasted him for not releasing the report immediately and have accused him of selectively picking from Mueller’s report so that the conclusions were as favorable as possible for President Trump.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Nita Lowey (D-NY) on Tuesday called Barr’s handling of Mueller’s report “unacceptable.”

“All we have is your four-page summary, which seems to cherry-pick from report to draw the most favorable conclusion possible for the president,” she said at the hearing.

She also grilled Barr on how he managed to write his March 24 letter just two days after receiving Mueller’s report, which is reportedly 300 to 400 pages. She also suggested Barr had made up his mind on the obstruction question long ago, pointing to a memo he wrote in June 2018 on his view that a president cannot legally obstruct justice.

Lowey said she understood that “portions of it must be redacted as a matter of law,” but added, “My hope is that you will stop there and bring transparency to this process as soon as possible.”

Barr told Lowey the thinking of the Special Counsel “was not a mystery to the people at the Department of Justice prior to his submission of the report” on March 22.

“[Mueller] and his people had been interacting with the deputy attorney general and lawyers supporting the deputy attorney general in his supervision of the Special Counsel, and in that context there had been discussions, so there was some inkling as to some of the thinking of the Special Counsel,” he said.

He said furthermore, he and Rosenstein had met with Mueller and his team on March 5 and had a preliminary discussion about the report.

“So we had an inkling as to what was coming our direction, and so even more thinking within the Department was done about that over that time, that was a matter of weeks. And then when the report came … the deputy attorney general and I and our staffs worked closely for the balance … of Saturday and Sunday.”

Barr also revealed at the hearing that Mueller was given a chance to review the March 24 letter, but he declined. Barr also said he did not alert the White House in advance about his letter’s release or consult anyone in the White House when writing his letter.

The attorney general also addressed media reports that alleged members of the Special Counsel were not happy with his letter. He said they may have wanted more from the final Mueller report out in the public sooner, but that he had to balance not releasing sensitive material with giving the public the bottom line conclusions as soon as possible.

Barr reiterated the four categories of information he wants to redact from the Mueller report before its release.

First is grand jury information, or “6(e)” material that was obtained during grand jury proceedings, which under the law has to be redacted.

Second is information that the intelligence community believes would reveal intelligence sources and methods.

Third is information in the report that could interfere in ongoing prosecutions and hurt prosecutors’ ability to prosecute or fairness to the defendants.

Fourth is information that implicates the privacy or reputational interests of peripheral players, where there is a decision not to charge them.

Barr said he is working with the Special Counsel to identify information that falls under those four categories, and that any redactions will be color-coded and accompanied by explanatory notes describing the basis for that redaction.

Rep. Ed Case (D-HI) asked Barr where he got the authority to redact the categories of information outside of 6(e) material, arguing that the fourth category was an exception large enough to “drive a truck through.” He later argued that Barr had “unlimited discretion” to redact information outside of 6(e) information.

Barr said his authority came from the regulation that sets up the Special Counsel, which provides for the Special Counsel report to go to him, and for him to decide what to release, consistent with longstanding DOJ policy.

He said the department’s longstanding policy and practice is that if the DOJ is not going to charge someone, it should not discuss bad and derogatory information about them.

“That’s what got everyone outraged at what FBI Director Comey did in the case of Hillary Clinton,” Barr said.

Barr also reminded lawmakers that the regulation he is under does not require him to release the report at all.

“I’m operating under a regulation that was put together during the Clinton administration and does not provide for the publication of the report, but I’m relying on my own discretion to make as much public as I can,” he said.

“This whole mechanism for the Special Counsel … was established during the Clinton administration in the wake of Ken Starr’s report, and that’s why the current rule says that the report should be kept confidential, because there was a lot of reaction against the publication of Ken Starr’s report.”

He also criticized those calling for the report’s release as hypocritical.

“Many of the people who are right now calling for the release of the report were castigating Ken Starr for releasing the Starr report,” he said.

When pressed by Lowey on whether the president’s comments that he has been exonerated were accurate, Barr urged her to wait until the report is out.

“It’s hard to have that discussion without the contents of the report, isn’t it, and that’s why I’m suggesting that we wait until the report is out, and I’m glad to talk to people after then, and I’m already scheduled to testify about that,” he said.

But, he said, he was willing to work with the Judiciary Committee on releasing information to satisfy their interests, while at the same time upholding the law.

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