William Barr was playing to a somewhat friendly crowd on Capitol Hill Wednesday, given that the Senate Judiciary Committee is chaired by Lindsey Graham, one of Donald Trump’s staunchest congressional allies, but Tuesday evening’s bombshell Washington Post story introduced a new wrinkle.
Just three days after Barr released his infamous four-page summary of the special counsel report, Robert Mueller sent the Justice Department a letter claiming that Barr “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance of this office’s work and conclusions.”
Revelations that Mueller was (and presumably still is) concerned about the extent to which Barr’s short summary shaped media coverage and thereby public opinion lent credence to the notion that the attorney general is engaged in a laborious effort to spin the findings in the interest of protecting the president – even if that means countenancing possible crimes and/or effectively stripping Congress of the opportunity to decide on the merits of the obstruction case themselves.
The Justice Department would subsequently release Mueller’s entire letter to Barr. Here it is:
Obviously, the optics aren’t great for DoJ or for the White House, especially considering Barr told Congress last month that he “didn’t know” whether Mueller supported his conclusions. To wit:
On April 20th, I asked Barr, “Did Bob Mueller support your conclusion?” His answer was, “I don’t know whether Mueller supported my conclusion.”
We now know Mueller stated his concerns on March 27th, and that Barr totally misled me, the Congress, and the public. He must resign. pic.twitter.com/rod404BbYo
— Chris Van Hollen (@ChrisVanHollen) May 1, 2019
Earlier Wednesday, Jerry Nadler said the Justice Department has agreed to Mueller testifying “subject to setting a date… sometime in May.”
“I’ll take a charitable view and assume that it’s just a question of setting a date and hopefully that’s true and we’ll find that out in the next couple of days”, Nadler continued, in remarks to reporters.
Dianne Feinstein said Wednesday she’s asked Graham to schedule a hearing with Mueller.
That was the backdrop for Barr’s testimony and while it will drag on for hours, the early highlight reel found Graham feigning outrage and Barr employing more of his trademark, monotone obfuscation.
Barr kicked things off by (essentially) blaming Mueller for the delay in releasing the full report.
The attorney general also faulted the special counsel for not making a determination on obstruction, which is just another attempt to explain why he felt it necessary to make that call himself, as opposed to leaving it to Congress, as Mueller arguably intended.
That feels a bit disingenuous. After all, had Mueller determined that Trump obstructed justice and recommended charges, Republicans would have lost their minds, so for Graham to pretend as though the GOP actually wanted a determination and didn’t prefer the decision to be left to Barr is manifestly dishonest.
Barr went on to recount his phone call with Mueller as follows:
Predictably, Graham caused a scene with his usual theatrics including an ill-fated attempt at humor wherein he admitted to not having actually read Mueller’s report.
Feinstein, on the other hand, quizzed Barr on the obstruction angle, including this exchange which found the attorney general essentially admitting that there was in fact evidence to support the contention that the president broke the law.
Subsequently, Barr resorted to some truly painful semantic acrobatics to explain why Trump’s attempts to convince Don McGahn to compel Rod Rosenstein to dismiss Mueller didn’t amount to obstruction.
Again, that is painful to watch.
Equally painful were Barr’s laborious efforts to perpetuate the “no collusion” meme, despite knowing that Mueller’s conclusions are far less black and white on coordination between the campaign and Moscow than the White House would like the public to believe. Barr also reiterated that he’s looking into the “origins” of the probe, an allusion to Trump’s long-standing demands that the DoJ investigate itself and other US law enforcement agencies.
When cornered on the fact that the report describes the Trump campaign as “receptive” to Russian assistance, Barr essentially refused to answer whether that’s something that should concern the Department of Justice. Oddly, Graham described that line of inquiry as “very well done” (to low chuckles from the peanut gallery).
Dick Durbin’s exchange with Barr pretty much sums up the proceedings. Have a listen to Barr falter when trying (again) to explain whether he misled Congress last month in light of Mueller’s letter:
Oh, and at one point, Graham tried to make a point by reading from the infamous Strzok texts. Unfortunately for Lindsey, that backfired, because the following 2-second soundbite is now a trending topic.