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‘Masterful Hairsplitting.’ Senate Democrats Criticize Attorney General Over Mueller Probe

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Senate Democrats criticized Attorney General William Barr for “misleading” and hairsplitting” in his handling of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation at a hearing Wednesday.

In a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Democratic lawmakers pressed the attorney general over his initial summary of the Mueller report, which they said falsely made it seem like Mueller had exonerated President Donald Trump; a letter from Mueller to Barr critiquing his handling of the summaries; and Barr’s previous testimony to Congress.

At one point, Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy argued that Barr was not forthright when he said under oath at a previous hearing that he was not aware of any criticism from Mueller’s team, despite the fact that he had received Mueller’s letter. Barr made a distinction between Mueller’s criticism and anonymous critiques from Mueller’s team that had surfaced in news reports.

“I feel that your answer was purposely misleading, and I think others do too,” Leahy replied. Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse later called Barr’s response to a similar question “masterful hairsplitting.”

Much of the criticism centered on a four-page letter Barr sent Congress on March 24 outlining what he saw as the “principal conclusions” of Mueller’s investigation.

In the letter, Barr said that Mueller had not found evidence that Trump or anyone associated with his campaign conspired with Russian efforts to interfere with the 2016 election. But on the question of whether Trump had obstructed justice with his response to the investigation, Barr wrote that Mueller decided “not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgement,” adding that he and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had then decided the evidence was insufficient.

But when a redacted version of the report was later sent to Congress, Democrats argued that Barr’s summary failed to note that Mueller had concluded that only Congress had the authority to determine whether Trump had obstructed justice through its own investigation.

“Congress may apply the obstruction laws to the President’s corrupt exercise of the powers of office,” Mueller wrote in the report. That conclusion, he said, “accords with our constitutional system of checks and balances and the principle that no person is above the law.”

Indeed, Mueller himself wrote Barr on March 27, arguing that Barr’s initial summary of the report “did not fully capture the context, nature and substance of this Office’s work and conclusions.” The existence of that letter did not become public until the Washington Post reported it on Tuesday, and Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee released it Wednesday morning.

In his testimony, Barr pushed back on arguments that he had misled the public.

Barr also said Mueller noted “emphatically” several times that the Office of Legal Counsel’s policy against the indictment of a sitting President was not a factor in his decision. He acknowledged that Mueller had told him he wanted to put out executive summaries, but that Barr was opposed, because he did not want the report released in “piecemeal.” And Barr insinuated that Mueller slowed the release of the report, claiming that he had asked him to identify the redacted grand jury material, which he did not do.

The Special Counsel office’s former spokesman Peter Carr — who has since resumed his duties in the criminal division of the Department of Justice — declined to comment. But Mueller may soon get his day to speak. The House Judiciary committee has requested that Mueller testify by May 23.

While Barr stated last month — and reiterated Wednesday — that he would have no objection to Mueller testifying, TIME reported April 26 that, according to a committee source, there is still no agreed-upon date, nor a commitment from the Department of Justice that it will happen.

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Write to Alana Abramson at Alana.Abramson@time.com