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US attorney-general under pressure to release Mueller evidence

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US Attorney-General under fire after reports say he ignored summaries that investigators had prepared

WASHINGTON Two weeks after he exonerated US President Donald Trump in the Russia meddling investigation, Attorney-General Bill Barr faces mounting pressure to show the full evidence behind his decision.

Allegations this week that the US Justice chief downplayed serious evidence of illegal obstruction by Trump in Special Counsel Robert Mueller's final report are fuelling demands that he release the entire, unexpurgated document to Congress.

News reports, citing unnamed members of Mr Mueller's staff, said Mr Barr ignored the summaries Mr Mueller's team prepared for public release and instead issued his own on March 24, in which he peremptorily cleared Mr Trump of any wrongdoing.

Mr Barr now says he will not release key evidence given to Mr Mueller's grand jury, a special panel used by prosecutors in politically-sensitive cases.

Democrats suspect the evidence could be damning to Mr Trump - setting up a legal and political showdown.

The Democrat-led House Judiciary Committee this week prepared to subpoena the full report, a move Mr Barr and the White House will almost certainly contest.

Last Thursday, Mr Jerry Nadler, the committee chairman, demanded Mr Barr turn over all communications between his office and Mr Mueller's, after reports that Mr Mueller's staff were unhappy with how Mr Barr presented their conclusions. Mr Barr's distillation "appears to minimise the implications of the report as to the president", said Mr Nadler.

"Releasing the summaries - without delay - would begin to allow the American people to judge the facts for themselves," he wrote.

At stake is Mr Trump's ability to put the Russia probe behind him and look to 2020 for re-election. Mr Trump, who declared a "complete and total exoneration" when Mr Barr announced the conclusions, said this week that Democrats "are fighting hard to keep the Witch Hunt alive".

Tomorrow, members of Congress might get their first chance to press Mr Barr in public about the Mueller report, when he appears before the House Appropriations Committee in a hearing nominally focused on the Justice Department Budget.

In his four-page summation of the 22-month investigation on March 24, Mr Barr said Mr Mueller found no evidence of collusion between Mr Trump's campaign and Russia in the 2016 election and that there was insufficient evidence to charge Mr Trump with obstruction.

Yet Mr Barr conceded that Mr Mueller did compile evidence of obstruction and quoted him as saying that: "While this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him."

Suspicions are deep among Democrats that Mr Barr took advantage of his position to clear Mr Trump and now wants to keep the most damaging parts of the report secret to protect the White House.

Mr Trump chose the veteran Republican lawyer to lead the Justice Department after firing his predecessor Jeff Sessions, whom Mr Trump resented for recusing himself from oversight of the Russia probe.

Last June , with Sessions' job already known to be imperiled, Mr Barr sent an unsolicited legal memo to the Justice Department and White House criticising the Mueller investigation.

Then a corporate attorney - but without knowledge of the internal work of the Russia probe - Mr Barr declared "Mueller's obstruction theory is fatally misconceived" and based on "a novel and legally unsupportable reading of the law".

The memo came to light only in December after Mr Trump had sacked Mr Sessions and chosen Mr Barr to replace him.

So far, Mr Barr has held firm to his stance that he will release this month more of the Mueller report, but stripped of evidence and testimony given to Mr Mueller's grand jury.- AFP