Barr Defends Himself—and Trump—Over Mueller in Blistering Senate Session

By betsy.woodruff@thedailybeast.com (Betsy Woodruff) Sam.Brodey@thedailybeast.com (Sam Brodey) justin.miller@thedailybeast.com (Justin Miller)
The Asahi Shimbun/Getty

Democrats accused Attorney General Bill Barr of misleading Congress and dissembling for President Trump the day after it was revealed Special Counsel Robert Mueller accused Barr of sowing confusion about his investigation.

At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) accused Barr of engaging in “masterful hairsplitting” to defend previous testimony about handling of the Mueller Report. Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) went further, likening Barr to Trump’s lackey and saying he outright lied to Congress. Other Democrats asked how Barr could conclude Trump’s brazen behavior in office was not criminal.

The catalyst for the Democratic reaction to Barr was a letter written by Mueller criticizing Barr’s summary of the Mueller Report he gave to Congress.

“The summary letter the Department sent to Congress and released to the public... did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance of this Office’s work and conclusions,” Mueller told Barr in March.

“There is now public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation,” he added.

Barr also suggested Mueller might not have even composed the letter.  

“The letter is a bit snitty and i think it was probably written by one of his staff people,” Barr told Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) at one point.

Mueller’s letter stood in stark contrast to testimony Barr gave in a House hearing last month. Asked if he was aware of any concerns on Mueller’s team about how the report was characterized, Barr said, “I suspect they probably wanted more put out.”

On Wednesday, Whitehouse asked Barr why he didn’t bring up the Mueller letter in his original answer. “To me, it seemed to be a very different question,” Barr said.

Whitehouse sounded incredulous.

“I can’t even follow that down the road,” he said. “Boy, that’s some masterful hairsplitting.”

During a recess after his exchange with Barr, Whitehouse shuffled down the hallway sending emails on his iPad. “I think he was cagey and misleading,” he told The Daily Beast.

Barr’s credibility was in “free fall,” said Whitehouse, adding that he seemed to be playing to an “audience of one,” referring to Trump. Several Democratic senators waiting for the elevator with him piped in their agreement.

Hirono went further during the hearing, calling Barr “no different than Rudy Giuliani or Kellyanne Conway or any of the other people who sacrificed their once-decent reputation for the grifter and liar who sits in the Oval Office.”

After Hirono said Barr lied, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), chairman of the committee, said she went too far.

“You slandered this man from top to bottom,” he said as Hirono’s time expired. “If you want more of this, you’re not gonna get it.”

Hirono and other Democrats have called for Barr’s resignation following the publication of Mueller’s bombshell letter Tuesday night that accused Barr of twisting the special counsel’s words.

Defending Trump

Throughout the hearing, Barr defended Trump’s conduct in office that Mueller investigated.  

In particular, he and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) discussed a directive Trump gave to White House Counsel Don McGahn to tell the Justice Department that Mueller was too conflicted to serve. McGahn told Trump those conflicts were bogus and he would resign before telling DOJ to sack Mueller.  

Barr said Trump wasn’t trying to stop the Mueller investigation—even though he wanted Mueller gone.

“There’s something very different between firing a special counsel outright, which suggests ending the investigation, and having a special counsel removed for conflicts, which suggests that you’re going to have another special counsel,” Barr said.

Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) said Trump’s proposal that McGahn write a memo “for our records” denying he ordered Mueller to be fired may have been intended for insidious purposes. Barr defended the president’s decision, saying Trump may have thought he was directing McGahn to write the truth.

Presidential candidates took their own shots at Barr.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) pressed him extensively on the evidence regarding obstruction of justice. Klobuchar, a former prosecutor, asked Barr about Trump’s criticism of people who “flip,” or cooperate with the government. Klobuchar pressed Barr on why this wasn’t evidence of a criminal witness tampering.

“The report found that after Manafort was convicted, the president himself called him a brave man for refusing to break,” Klobuchar said.

“Yes,” Barr began, “and that is not obstruction because the president's—the evidence, I think—what the president's lawyers would say is that the president's statements about flipping are quite clear, and express, 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. That is not—it's a discouraging flipping in that sense, it's not obstruction.”

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), who is also running for president, asked Barr whether he and Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein had reviewed the underlying evidence before declaring there was not enough proof to conclude Trump committed a criminal offense.

“No,” Barr said, answering that neither Rosenstein nor anyone in his executive office, to his knowledge, had reviewed that evidence either. “We accepted the statements in the report and the characterization of the evidence as true.”

“No, Harris said. “Yet, you represented to the American public that the evidence was not, quote, sufficient to support an obstruction of justice offense…”

Barr then cut her off.

“In the Department of Justice we have cross memos and declination memos every day coming up and we don’t go and look at the underlying evidence.”

Harris criticized Barr from her perspective as a former prosecutor.

“No prosecutor worth her salt would make a decision about whether the president of the United States was involved in obstruction of justice without viewing the evidence. This attorney general lacks all credibility,” she told reporters, adding Barr should resign.

On Offense

Republicans stayed united behind a counteroffensive that impugned the roots of the Mueller investigation as a political “spying” on the Trump campaign by politically motivated FBI officials. They found a receptive audience in Barr, who enthusiastically defended his use of the word “spying” to describe the FBI’s court-authorized surveillance of campaign advisor Carter Page.

“I’m not going to abjure the use of the word spying,” Barr said. “My first job was in the CIA, and I don’t think the word spying has any pejorative connotation at all.”

“It is not commonly used by the department,” said Whitehouse.

“It is commonly used by me,” Barr responded with a smile.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) pressed Barr on why the FBI launched a counterintelligence investigation in 2016 related to the Trump campaign and Russia.

“I am looking into it,” Barr replied.

Then Hawley asked if Barr would share his findings with Congress.

“At the end of the day, when I form conclusions, I intend to share them,” he replied.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” Hawley said.

—With additional reporting by Jackie Kucinich.


Read more at The Daily Beast.