Attorney General William BarrWilliam Pelham BarrMueller twice asked Barr to release report’s key findings Read: Mueller’s letter to Barr William Barr should be scrutinized on his record rather than rhetoric MORE appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday amid a new storm over criticism from special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE.
What were the main takeaways from Barr’s day of testimony?
Democrats find new impetus
Democrats have new wind in their sails following the revelation that Mueller had written in protest to Barr in March, soon after the attorney general released a four-page document outlining the special counsel’s principal conclusions.
Mueller objected to Barr’s memo, asserting that it “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance” of his work. Barr insists that Mueller accepted, in a subsequent phone call, that the attorney general had not mischaracterized his report.
The revelation of the Mueller contacts — first reported in quick succession by The Washington Post and The New York Times on Tuesday evening — dominated Wednesday’s hearings, as Democrats cast doubt on Barr’s integrity and truthfulness.
Democrats have long argued that Barr, a Trump appointee, is little more than a patsy for the president. In their view, he used his position to spin the report to the White House’s advantage, enabling a Trump-friendly narrative to solidify in the three weeks between the release of his initial document and the publication of a redacted version of the full report.
That view has been buttressed by events of the past 24 hours. That’s good news for Democrats and bad news for Barr and Trump.
Barr’s credibility takes more hits
It wasn’t only the contacts with Mueller that caused the attorney general problems.
His own answers at times undercut his credibility.
Although he never lost his cool under aggressive questioning from the committee’s Democrats, he often split hairs.
He suggested there was an important hypothetical difference between firing Mueller and removing him for conflicts of interest.
Asked by Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinLive coverage: Barr faces grilling on Mueller’s criticism Senate Dems put brakes on Trump impeachment talk California Democrats post tributes to former Rep. Ellen Tauscher MORE (D-Calif.) about Trump allegedly pressuring then-White House counsel Don McGahn to lie “in order to prevent further criticism of himself,” Barr shot back, “Well, that’s not a crime.”
Barr also admitted, under questioning from 2020 presidential candidate Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisButtigieg campaign says he supports some vaccine exemptions The Hill’s Morning Report – The heat turns up on Bill Barr Trump ruling boosts gig economy firms MORE (D-Calif.), that he had not examined the underlying evidence before concluding that Trump should not be charged with obstruction of justice.
Trump defenders could argue in defense of any of those answers.
But, in aggregate, his performance created the impression of a man leaning on semantics and the finest of lawyerly distinctions to protect his boss, the president.
Mixed performances from 2020 Dems
The committee includes three Democrats who are running for president: Harris, Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharTrump ruling boosts gig economy firms Mueller fails to break stalemate on election meddling crackdown Buttigieg releases 10 years of tax returns MORE (Minn.) and Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerOmar defends Somalia: ‘That shithole country raised a very proud, dignified person’ Trump ruling boosts gig economy firms Senate Dems put brakes on Trump impeachment talk MORE (N.J.).
Harris had by far the best day. She has shone at committee hearings before, utilizing her skills as a prosecutor to powerful effect.
She did the same on Wednesday — and it went beyond wringing from Barr the admission about not reviewing all the underlying evidence.
The attorney general also struggled to answer Harris’s question about whether Trump or others at the White House had “asked or suggested” that he open an investigation into anyone.
A hesitant Barr said, “I’m trying to grapple with the word ‘suggest.’ ” He never gave an unequivocal answer.
Klobuchar did not land quite such powerful punches, but she did cause Barr some unease with a question about whether the president’s actions were “consistent with his oath of office.”
Booker’s performance, however, was largely forgettable — a problem for a presidential candidate who has struggled for traction.
After the hearing, Harris and Booker both called for Barr to resign.
When it comes to making headlines — and sparking excitement among likely primary voters — this was Harris’s day.
GOP circles wagons on Barr
The attorney general can take solace from the fact there is no sign at all that Republicans are weakening in their support for him.
Republican senators on Wednesday sought to keep the focus on alleged FBI misdeeds, as well as hearkening back to the investigation into 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonColorado moves presidential primary to Super Tuesday To impeach or not to impeach, that is the question Congress must face Live coverage: Barr faces grilling on Mueller’s criticism MORE’s use of a private server and email address while she was secretary of State.
Along the way, several paid tribute to Barr.
Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzTexas Lt. Governor calls Beto O’Rourke a ‘moron’ Poll: Climate change is top issue for registered Democrats Iowa conservative leader slams 2020 Dems turning down Christian event MORE (R-Texas) thanked him, saying “you didn’t have to take this job” and drawing parallels between his treatment and that of Supreme Court Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughTop McConnell aide joins Chamber legal reform group GOP senator ‘not enthused’ by Trump Fed nominee’s past writings: ‘I think it’s ridiculous’ McConnell signs shirt joking about expiration of Merrick Garland’s nomination MORE at his confirmation hearings last year.
Cruz said that Barr had answered the call of duty “knowing full well that you would be subject to the kind of slanderous treatment — the Kavanaugh treatment — that we have seen, of senators impugning your integrity.”
The committee’s chairman, Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamLive coverage: Barr faces grilling on Mueller’s criticism The Hill’s Morning Report – The heat turns up on Bill Barr Mueller fails to break stalemate on election meddling crackdown MORE (R-S.C.), took a similar stance after Barr came under fiery attack from Sen. Mazie HironoMazie Keiko HironoDemocrats request probe into Barr’s handling of Mueller report Hillicon Valley: Washington preps for Mueller report | Barr to hold Thursday presser | Lawmakers dive into AI ethics | FCC chair moves to block China Mobile | Dem bill targets ‘digital divide’ | Microsoft denies request for facial recognition tech Dems introduce bill to tackle ‘digital divide’ MORE (D-Hawaii). An angry Graham told Hirono that she had “slandered this man.”
Reactions to Barr will split along partisan lines, like so much else in the current political moment. But the fact that there is no dilution of GOP support keeps him safe for now.
All eyes on Mueller
Democrats no longer believe — if they ever did — that Barr’s word can be trusted.
That means they are ardent about hearing from Mueller himself.
They want to know if the special counsel agrees with Barr’s version of events.
Did Mueller really agree that Barr’s original four-page memo did not mischaracterize his full report? Was Mueller, as Barr said, offered the chance to review that memo in advance of its release, yet declined?
There is, as yet, no date set for Mueller to testify, though Barr reiterated on Wednesday that he has no objection to him doing so.
Graham, however, told reporters that he would not be inviting the special counsel before his committee.
“I’m not going to do any more. Enough already. It’s over,” he told reporters.
It is a different story in the House, where Democrats hold the majority. They will now step up their efforts to bring Mueller to Capitol Hill.
Any appearance by the special counsel will be enormous news.