Attorney General William Barr said in an interview Monday that the Justice Department would support Robert Mueller if he decides he "doesn't want to subject himself" to questioning from congressional Democrats at a planned July 17 hearing.
Barr's comments raised the dramatic possibility that Mueller would pull out of the questioning at the last minute -- a potential coup for Democrats, as some Republicans and commentators have said Mueller's testimony could end up revealing fundamental problems with his now-closed investigation.
Although Mueller no longer was a DOJ employee, the Trump administration could still limit testimony about decisions made while he was special counsel. Barr indicated the Justice Department would seek to block any attempt by Congress to subpoena members of the former special counsel's team but did not say Mueller's testimony would be restricted in any way.
At the same time, a Mueller pullout would avert an unnecessary "public spectacle," Barr told The Associated Press, given that Mueller has stated publicly that his exhaustive report on 2016 foreign election interference spoke for itself.
Trump attorney Jay Sekulow, however, has countered that Mueller's remarks could be necessary. Sekulow, in a Fox News op-ed last month, pushed for answers as to when exactly Mueller learned there was no evidence of collusion between the Trump team and Russia -- and why Mueller's team hinted in sworn court filings even late into the investigation that such collusion remained a tantalizing possibility.
"I'm not sure what purpose is served by dragging him up there and trying to grill him," Barr asserted. "I don't think Mueller should be treated that way or subject himself to that, if he doesn't want to."
Mueller's 448-page report, released with redactions in April, found no proof that the Trump campaign conspired with Russian actors to influence the election, despite multiple outreach efforts by Russians, and did not reach a conclusion on whether President Trump obstructed justice.
Even so, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, tweeted Monday that Barr's remarks were "no surprise."
"Barr misled the public about Mueller's report, and wants his own deception to stand," Schiff wrote, referring to Barr's decision to release an initial summary of Mueller's report shortly before publishing the complete, redacted version. "The public has a right to hear the truth, from Mueller himself, about Trump's misconduct and ongoing national security risks."
In a news conference this past May, Mueller defended Barr's decision to release the summary: "At one point in time, I requested that certain portions of the report be released," Mueller said. "The attorney general preferred to make the entire report public all at once. We appreciate that the attorney general made the report largely public, and I certainly do not question the attorney general's good faith in that decision."
Barr's additionally said he still saw a legal path forward for requiring 2020 Census respondents to declare whether or not they're citizens. The Justice Department announced Sunday it was putting together a new legal team to spearhead its effort to ask the citizenship question after the Supreme Court temporarily blocked the move.
The justices said the administration's justification for the question "seems to have been contrived," but implied they would consider additional arguments from the White House.
The new legal team, named in court papers, included Deputy Assistant Attorney General David Morrell, a former Trump White House lawyer and law clerk to Justice Clarence Thomas; Christopher Bates, who previously worked for Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, and four career Justice Department attorneys: Glenn Girdharry, Colin Kisor, Christopher Reimer and Daniel Schiffer.
James Burnham, a top lawyer in the department's civil division who had been leading the team, had told Barr that a number of people who'd been litigating the case preferred "not to continue during this new phase," the attorney general said.
Barr would not detail the new team's precise plans, though a senior official told The Associated Press that Trump was expected to issue a memorandum to the Commerce Department instructing it to include the question on census forms. Barr said he didn't have details on why the attorneys didn't want to continue, but "as far as I know, they don't think we are legally wrong."
Many Democrats have said a citizenship question would deter illegal immigrants from filling out census forms. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Monday that Trump wanted to add the demand for citizenship information because he wanted to "make America white again."
Census data counts all residents, including illegal immigrants, and is used to determine congressional apportionments and the makeup of the Electoral College. Although illegal immigrants cannot vote, their children become citizens automatically if born in the United States under a practice known as birthright citizenship -- which the Trump administration separately has called into question.
The Trump administration has argued it wanted the citizenship question included to aid in enforcing the Voting Rights Act, which protects minority voters' access to the ballot box. However, Chief Justice John Roberts joined the court's four more liberal members in last month's Supreme Court decision, openly skeptical about that justification.
Pelosi, meanwhile, said in a letter to colleagues that the full House would be moving forward with a vote to hold Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt of Congress after the administration failed to comply with subpoenas regarding the census question.
Barr spoke to the AP after touring a federal prison in Edgefield, South Carolina, where he met with inmates and staff members to discuss the criminal justice reform law that Congress approved and Trump signed into law last year.
Separately, Barr revealed that he recused himself from the Jeffrey Epstein criminal case "because one of the law firms that represented Epstein long ago was a firm I subsequently joined for a period of time."
An indictment alleging sex trafficking and sex trafficking conspiracy was unsealed Monday morning against Epstein, the wealthy and politically connected financier who pleaded not guilty during his initial appearance in a New York City federal court. Prosecutors alleged that Epstein, the 66-year-old hedge fund manager arrested on Saturday, preyed on "dozens" of victims as young as 14.
Fox News' Catherine Herridge, Jake Gibson, and The Associated Press contributed to this report.