US Attorney General William Barr
US Attorney General William Barr Image Credit: AP

WASHINGTON: Attorney General William Barr said in an interview broadcast Thursday that special counsel Robert Mueller should have decided whether his findings about President Donald Trump’s efforts to impede the Russia investigation amounted to criminal activity.

“I personally felt he could have made a decision,” Barr told CBS News during an interview in Alaska, where he is visiting law enforcement officials. “But he had his reasons for not doing it, which he explained. And I’m not going to, you know, argue about those reasons.”

Barr reiterated his criticism of Mueller for his decision not to definitively conclude whether the president obstructed justice in his report that detailed 11 instances in which Trump tried to derail the special counsel’s work.

During a Senate hearing this spring, Barr also said that if Mueller was not going to “go down the path of making a traditional prosecutive decision, then he shouldn’t have investigated.”

In the absence of a decision by Mueller, Barr cleared the president of any criminal activity.

Barr’s latest criticism of the special counsel’s office reignited the debate over Mueller’s choice and shows how his demurral allowed Barr to initially control the narrative about the report’s most important findings.

Barr has been widely criticised for stepping in to determine that the president had not obstructed justice. He wrote in a March 24 letter to Congress that Mueller’s refusal to decide “leaves it to the attorney general to determine whether the conduct described in the report constitutes a crime.”

Democrats ramped up their attacks on that assertion this week, after Mueller made clear in his first public remarks since being appointed special counsel that he believed that others could weigh the evidence and come to a conclusion, including members of Congress, voters and perhaps even future prosecutors.

“It is with the greatest respect for Special Counsel Robert Mueller and the deepest disappointment in the Department of Justice holding the president above the law, that I thank Special Counsel Mueller for the work he and his team did,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement.

But in his interview, taped during a weeklong trip to meet with law enforcement officials in Alaska, Barr played down the possibility that Mueller wanted Congress to act on his evidence. “The Department of Justice doesn’t use our powers of investigating crimes as an adjunct to Congress,” he said.

While Barr has been under fire for his handling of the Mueller report, he is not alone in saying that Mueller could have drawn stronger conclusions about Trump.

From the outset, Mueller decided not to explore the possibility of charging Trump with a crime, based on Justice Department policies that prosecutors cannot indict a sitting president, nor can they accuse someone of a crime who cannot defend himself in court.

“The special counsel looked at the Justice Department restrictions and created this box for himself,” said Matt Jacobs, a lawyer at Vinson & Elkins who worked for Mueller as a prosecutor and a spokesman.

“If he had been a true independent counsel, and not a special counsel who worked within the Justice Department, he would not have felt so restricted,” Jacobs said.

Few people thought that Mueller would draw no conclusion, and former prosecutors say that there were other ways to interpret department strictures.

“Another special counsel might have decided, because the memo was a confidential document to the attorney general, that it could have concluded that the president could have been charged and explained why,” said Mary McCord, a former top national security prosecutor at the Justice Department.

“Because that information would have been confidential, it would not conflict with the Department of Justice policy that it’s unfair to accuse someone of a crime who cannot defend himself in court,” McCord said.

In his interview, Barr said that while the Justice Department has ruled that a sitting president cannot be indicted, Mueller “could’ve reached a decision as to whether it was criminal activity.”

Barr has been quick to fill in the information vacuum created by Mueller, and has been denounced for doing so in a way favourable to the president.

Two days after receiving the report, Barr cleared Trump of any obstruction-of-justice crime, writing, “I have concluded that the evidence developed during the special counsel’s investigation is not sufficient to establish that the president committed an obstruction-of-justice offence.”

And at a news conference just before he released the Mueller report, Barr minimised damning details about Trump and instead recast the investigation from the president’s point of view.

“In assessing the president’s actions discussed in the report, it is important to bear in mind the context,” Barr said in his remarks. “There was relentless speculation in the news media about the president’s personal culpability. Yet, as he said from the beginning, there was in fact no collusion.”