Barr says Justice Department and Mueller sparred over "legal analysis" in Russia report

Barr: DOJ, Mueller sparred on legal analysis

In an exclusive interview with "CBS This Morning," Attorney General William Barr said Robert Mueller and the Justice Department disagreed over the "legal analysis" in the special counsel's report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Mueller said his investigation did not establish President Trump committed obstruction of justice, but also did not exonerate him. Barr said he believes Mueller could have come to a conclusion as to whether the president obstructed justice. 

During a nearly hour-long interview in Anchorage, Alaska, CBS News chief legal correspondent Jan Crawford pressed the attorney general on a number of issues from obstruction to his new review of the Russia investigation. The attorney general said he was surprised when Mueller told him he would not decide if the president obstructed justice but said he didn't press him on it and then, working with Justice Department lawyers, stepped in and made the decision himself based on the evidence Mueller had gathered.

Asked about the fundamental difference between his and Mueller's views on what the evidence gathered during the Russia probe means, Barr said, "I think Bob said he was not going to engage in the analysis. He was not going to make a determination one way or the other. We analyzed the law and the facts and a group of us spent a lot of time doing that and determined that both as a matter of law, many of the instances would not amount to obstruction."

"As a matter of law?" Crawford asked.

"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. It did not reflect the views of the department," Barr said. "It was the views of a particular lawyer or lawyers and so we applied what we thought was the right law."

That decision – offered up in a four-page summary – opened the attorney general up to criticism that he was too soft on President Trump.

"I was trying to state the bottom line," Barr said, addressing that criticism. "And the bottom line was that Bob Mueller identified some episodes. He did not reach a conclusion. 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."

While Barr testified before Congress about the special counsel's report, Mueller wants the report to speak for itself and has signaled he does not want to testify. Barr said whether he does is up to him. 

Barr says Mueller "could've reached a decision" on obstruction

"But I think the line he's drawing which is he's going to stick what he said in the report is the proper line for any department official," Barr said.
 
Crawford also asked the attorney general about Mueller's final caution in his remarks that there were "multiple, systematic efforts to interfere in our election," and how the Justice Department is working to ensure this doesn't happen again in 2020.

"Yes, we do have, I think, an increasingly robust program that is focusing on foreign influence in our election process," Barr said. "I talked recently to the director of the FBI about putting together a special high level group to make sure we're totally prepared for the upcoming elections."

The president has repeatedly accused former intelligence officials of dropping the ball by fixating too much and "spying" on his campaign. Barr testified that he believes spying on the Trump campaign  did occur and took some criticism for using the word "spying" in particular.

"Yeah, I mean, I guess it has become a dirty word somehow. It hasn't ever been for me. I think there is nothing wrong with spying, the question is always whether it is authorized by law," Barr said.

Some former intelligence chiefs have said that President Trump has given spying a negative connotation with his repeated accusations that the Russia investigation was a witch hunt and a hoax. Critics say use of the word "spying" by Barr signaled his loyalty to Mr. Trump.

"You know, it is part of the craziness of the modern day that if a president uses a word then all of a sudden it becomes off bounds, it is a perfectly good English word, I will continue to use it," Barr said.

"What have you seen? What evidence?" Crawford pressed.

"Like many other people who are familiar with intelligence activities, I had a lot of questions about  what was going on," Barr said. "I assumed I'd get answers when I went in, and I have not gotten answers that are, well, satisfactory, and in fact I probably have more questions, and that some of the facts that, that I've learned don't hang together with the official explanations of what happened."

Asked what he means by that Barr said, "That's all I really will say. Things are just not jiving."

Barr said that he believes government interference into a U.S. election is just as dangerous as foreign interference, and that's why he's begun an investigation into the intelligence community's actions in the run-up to the 2016 election.

He's asked the president for the authority to declassify information that he thinks may be in the public interest.