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'I Didn't Exonerate': Barr Goes Before the Senate

Attorney general appears before the Senate Judiciary Committee
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted May 1, 2019 9:30 AM CDT
Updated May 1, 2019 3:00 PM CDT

(Newser) – Into the lion's den. Attorney General William Barr is now appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee in what is the first time he is facing lawmakers' questions since he released the Mueller report. A couple hours in, the AP reports that "private tensions between Justice Department leaders and special counsel Robert Mueller's team broke into public view in extraordinary fashion," with Barr pushing back at complaints over his handling of the Mueller report. Barr is facing questions from disgruntled Democrats who believe he painted the investigation's findings in an overly favorable light for President Trump, and the hearing comes on the heels of the Tuesday night news that Robert Mueller conveyed his displeasure with the portrayal of his findings to Barr. Highlights from the hearing:

  • CNN reports committee Chair Lindsey Graham opened the hearing by saying he has read the bulk of Mueller's almost 400-page report. Graham's take: "For me, it is over."
  • The AP reports Barr faulted Mueller for not flagging grand jury material in his report, which Barr says slowed the release of the public version of it.
  • He also said he learned at a March 5 meeting that Mueller and his investigators didn't arrive at a determination regarding whether or not Trump obstructed justice. Graham asked Barr if he was surprised that Mueller "was going to let you decide" about obstruction of justice. Barr's response: "Yes, I was surprised."

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  • "I'm not really sure of his reasoning," Barr said of Mueller's obstruction analysis, which neither accused the president of a crime nor exonerated him. "I think that if he felt that he shouldn't go down the path of making a traditional prosecutive decision then he shouldn't have investigated. That was the time to pull up."
  • The Guardian reports Sen. Dianne Feinstein asked Barr about the exchange detailed in the Mueller report where Trump instructed White House counsel Don McGahn to have Mueller pulled from his post and then deny it. Barr said this doesn't add up to obstruction because he wasn't solely saying to have Mueller fired, but to have him fired due to conflicts of interest (in which case a new special counsel would be named).
  • Barr said that after receiving a letter from Mueller that criticized Barr's four-page letter about the report as "not fully captur[ing] the context, nature, and substance" of the special counsel's "work and conclusions," Barr called him. He says Mueller told him "he was not suggesting that we had misrepresented his report."
  • The Washington Post reports Barr was asked by Sen. John Cornyn about whether the Steele dossier could be an element in a Russian disinformation campaign, and he allowed that it's possible. "That is one of the areas that I'm reviewing and I'm concerned about it, and I don't think it's entirely speculative," Barr said.
  • Barr repeated that he would have "no objection" to Mueller testifying, but that it would be the president's "call" as to whether McGahn should testify due to his knowledge of "privileged matters."
  • Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono launched an aggressive line of questioning against the attorney general, asserting he hadn't been honest with Congress and calling on him to resign. Hirono also asked Barr if it was OK for a president to ask one of his aides to lie, referencing the report's examination of whether Trump obstructed justice. When Barr equivocated, Hirono grew angry, saying, "Mr. attorney general, please give us some credit for knowing what the hell is going on right now." Graham shot back: "You have slandered this man from top to bottom." Barr himself chimed in, asking "How did we get to this point?"

  • Barr said he didn't exonerate the president because that's not the job of the Justice Department. "I didn't exonerate. I said that we didn't believe that there was sufficient evidence to establish an obstruction offense. ... The job of the Justice Department is now over. That determines whether or not there is a crime. The report is now in the hands of the American people. Everyone can decide for themselves: There’s an election in 18 months."
  • The Post reports that what might be Barr's "most robust defense of Trump of the day" came during questioning by Sen. Marsha Blackburn. He said he thinks the evidence demonstrates Trump was "falsely accused of colluding with the Russians and accused of being treasonous and accused of being a Russian agent" but that "to listen to some of the rhetoric, you would think the Mueller report found the opposite."
  • During her questioning of Barr, Sen. Kamala Harris accused him of failing to review the evidence before deciding not to charge Trump with obstruction of justice. After the hearing, she told reporters "yes" when asked whether she thought Barr should resign, CNN reports. "No prosecutor worth her salt would make a decision on whether (the president) was involved in obstruction of justice without reviewing the evidence," she said. "This Attorney General lacks all credibility and I think has compromised the public’s ability to believe he is a purveyor of justice." Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand also called on Barr to resign, per the Washington Post.
  • CNN also notes that during his questioning by Sen. Cory Booker, Barr appeared to be unaware that Trump’s campaign chairman sent internal polls to a Russian oligarch.
  • As Graham wrapped up the hearing, he said he would invite Mueller to speak to the committee, if needed, to clarify any of Barr's testimony.
  • The Post has four early takeaways here.
  • More from the AP: The airing of disagreements over the handling of the report was notable given the highly secretive nature of the special counsel's investigation and the public appearance for at least most of the probe that the Justice Department and Mueller's team were unified in approach. But Barr sought to minimize the rift by suggesting the special counsel's concerns were largely about process, not substance.
(Read more William Barr stories.)

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