Special Counsel Robert Mueller complained to the attorney general over his characterization of the Russia probe that allowed President Donald Trump to declare himself cleared of obstruction of justice, US media reported Tuesday. Trump cast himself as fully exonerated after Bill Barr delivered a four-page memo to Congress on March 24 that he called a summary of the two-year probe's key findings, telling lawmakers the evidence was insufficient to support criminal obstruction charges.
The release of a redacted version of the full 400-plus page report on April 18, however, revealed that Mueller had detailed numerous attempts by the president to thwart the investigation. The Washington Post said Mueller's letter to Barr three days later complained that the attorney general's memo "did not fully capture the context, nature and substance of this office's work and conclusions."
"There is no public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation," Mueller reportedly wrote, in stark language that apparently surprised Justice Department officials. "This threatens to undermine a central purpose for which the Department appointed the Special Counsel: to assure full public confidence in the outcome of the investigations."
Democrats in Congress are expected to question Barr at length over his role in the probe and interactions with Mueller as he appears for two days of hearings on Capitol Hill later this week. A rift between the special counsel's office and Barr, Mueller's boss and longtime friend, appeared to emerge in the days following the release of the attorney general's memo, as investigators let it be known through intermediaries that they felt frustrated by Barr's representation of their work.
The New York Times pointed to instances of Barr taking Mueller's words out of context in a manner that painted a less damaging picture of Trump's behaviour and suggested that the president had no motive to obstruct justice. Barr also repeatedly said Mueller had found "no collusion" between the Trump campaign and Russia -- even though the report specifically pointed out that it had investigated a possible criminal conspiracy and not "collusion," which has no legal definition.
A Justice Department spokeswoman confirmed that Mueller had written to Barr, and said the attorney general called the special counsel after receiving the letter. "In a cordial and professional conversation, the special counsel emphasized that nothing in the attorney general's March 24 letter was inaccurate or misleading," a Justice Department spokeswoman said in a statement.
"But he expressed frustration over the lack of context and the resulting media coverage regarding the special counsel's obstruction analysis." Mueller's report -- the culmination of a probe that had haunted Trump since the start of his presidency -- confirmed that Russian operatives tried to help Trump defeat his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, including by hacking into email accounts.
The probe found that Trump's campaign took advantage of the impact on Clinton but did not deliberately reach out to collude with the Russians. Several Democrats, notably presidential hopeful Senator Elizabeth Warren, have called for Trump to be impeached for welcoming a hostile power's help and for allegedly obstructing the investigation after the election.
(With inputs from agencies.)