Three Democratic presidential candidates sit on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and they took full advantage of the national spotlight to show their toughness against Attorney General William Barr in his contentious hearing Wednesday.
Senators Kamala Harris of California, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Cory Booker of New Jersey zeroed in on Barr’s four-page memo characterizing the 448-page report by special counsel Robert Mueller, which detailed 10 episodes that Democrats have argued amount to obstruction of justice by Donald Trump.
Barr, in his March 24 memo, which he repeatedly argued before Congress was not a summary, stated that the special counsel’s probe found no conspiracy between Trump’s campaign and Russia and that he along with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein concluded that “the evidence developed during the Special Counsel's investigation is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.”
Harris, a former prosecutor and California attorney general, questioned Barr closely on how he reached that decision.
“In you reaching your conclusion, did you personally review all of the underlying evidence?” she asked.
“No,” said Barr. “We accepted the statements in the report as the factual record. We did not go underneath it to see whether or not it was accurate, we accepted it as accurate.”
Barr also said he wasn’t aware if Rosenstein had reviewed the evidence and confirmed that no one in his office had done so either.
“Yet you represented to the American public that the evidence was not ‘sufficient to support an obstruction-of-justice offense,’” said Harris.
Barr defended taking the “characterization of the evidence as true,” saying it was “not a mysterious process.”
Harris fired back: “As the attorney general of the United States, you run the United States Department of Justice. If in any U.S. attorney’s office the head of that office when being asked to make a critical decision about, in this case, the person who holds the highest office in the land, and whether or not that person committed a crime, would you accept them recommending a charging decision to you if they had not reviewed the evidence?”
“Well that’s a question for Bob Mueller,” said Barr. “He’s the U.S. attorney, he’s the one who presents the report.”
“But it was you who made the charging decision,” said Harris. “You said it was your baby, what did you mean by that?”
“It was my baby to decide whether or not to disclose it to the public,” Barr responded.
Earlier, Harris had stumped Barr by asking whether “the president or anyone at the White House ever asked or suggested that you open an investigation of anyone?”
After stammering for a few moments, Barr asked Harris to repeat the question.
“It seems you’d remember something like that,” Harris said drily.
Barr eventually admitted he didn’t know.
Mueller, before the full report was released to the public mid-April, complained to Barr in a March 27 letter that the attorney general’s summary "did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance of this office’s work and conclusions.”
After he received the letter, Barr testified, he had called Mueller to discuss his objections. That seemed to contradict his testimony at a hearing in early April, when he was asked by Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., if Mueller supported his conclusion on obstruction. Barr said he didn’t know.
Klobuchar took up that line of questioning.
“I think when Senator Van Hollen and Representative [Charlie] Christ asked you if the special counsel disagreed with you, under oath you had to go out your way not to at least mention the fact that he had sent you this letter. But you didn’t mention it,” said Klobuchar.
The Minnesota senator, who also has a background as a prosecutor, probed the evidence cited by Mueller outlining “multiple acts by the President that were capable of exerting undue influence over law enforcement investigations, including the Russian-interference and obstruction investigations.”
The report mentioned threats by Trump against his former lawyer Michael Cohen and statements about his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his former White House counsel Don McGahn.
Before Cohen was to testify before Congress about his tenure in the Trump Organization, Trump lashed out at his ex-attorney who he accused of “lying to reduce his jail time” and said people should “watch [Cohen’s] father-in-law!”
“This is a man in the highest office in the most powerful job in our country, and he is basically — I’m trying to think how someone would react ... if the president of the United States is implying, getting out there that your family members have committed a crime,” said Klobuchar. “You don’t consider that any attempt to change testimony?”
Klobuchar moved onto Manafort: “The report found that the president’s personal counsel told Paul Manafort that he would be ‘taken care of,’” she said. “That you don’t consider obstruction of justice?”
“No, not standing alone,” said Barr.
“And I think that is my point here,” interjected Klobuchar. “You look at the totality of the evidence.
“The report found that after Manafort was convicted, the president himself called him a brave man for refusing to break.”
“That is not obstruction,” said Barr. “What the president’s lawyers would say ... is that the president’s statements about flipping are quite clear and expressed and uniformly the same which is by flipping he meant succumbing to pressure on unrelated cases to lie and compose in order to get lenient treatment on other cases.”
“Discouraging flipping, in that sense,” he added, “is not obstruction.”
In her final attempt to prove a “pattern” of obstruction, Klobuchar asked whether Trump was interfering in the investigation when he asked McGahn to deny media reports that the president ordered him to have Mueller fired.
“If you don’t see that as obstruction and directing him to change testimony, do you think that would create a false record to impair the integrity of evidence?” she asked.
“It fails,” Barr responded. “The evidence would not be sufficient.”
He continued: “The government has to prove things beyond a reasonable doubt, and as the report shows, there is ample evidence on the other side of the ledger that would prevent the government from establishing that.”
Booker said the Mueller report described “a deep litany of lies and deceit and misconduct: the president of the United States instructing people to lie and be deceitful, evidence of people trying to cover up behavior that on its face is morally wrong, whatever the legal standard is.”
“You said, ‘We know that the Russian operatives who perpetrated these schemes did not have the cooperation of President Trump or Trump campaign. That is something that all Americans can and should be grateful to have confirmed,’” said Booker, reading Barr’s statement on the report’s release. “I find your choice of words alarming. It calls into question your objectivity when you look at the actual context of the report. Should the American people really be grateful that a candidate for president sought to benefit from material information that was stolen by a foreign power in an effort to influence an election?”
“I’m not sure what you mean by seek to benefit,” said Barr. “There’s no indication that they engaged either in the conspiracy to act or that they engaged in the action with respect to dissemination that was criminal.”
Barr argued that foreign governments and citizens frequently try to contact candidates' campaigns, citing the 2016 Clinton campaign, which Republican senators also brought up throughout the hearing.
“If we were right now to go and look at, for example, Hillary Clinton's campaign during the time frame, you would see a lot of foreign governments trying to establish—”
“And that’s, I guess, what I’m trying to say to you,” interrupted Booker. “We right now have a new normal in our country. We have a document that shows over 200 connections between a presidential campaign and a foreign adversary, sharing information that would be illegal if you did it with a super-PAC.”
He continued: “My point is that your willingness to seem to brush over this and use words like the ‘American people should be grateful’ — what’s in this report, nobody should be grateful. Concerted efforts for deception and for misleading, inappropriate action after inappropriate action, that is clear.”
“And on top of that,” added Booker, “at a time that we all recognized that we had a foreign power trying to undermine our election, you, the chief law enforcement officer, not only undermined your credibility as an independent actor when there’s ongoing investigation still, using the president’s own words, having it criticized by Mueller himself. But the challenge we now have is that we’re going into an area where you seem to not even be willing to be in the least bit critical in your summarizations.”
Booker said Barr’s position called his “credibility” into question.
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