WASHINGTON — Attorney General William Barr appeared more willing to discuss the finer points of the English language than his handling of the Mueller report at his Wednesday hearing, quibbling with senators over the definitions of words like “summary,” “accurate,” “fired,” “spying,” “colluded,” “hinted,” “suggest,” and “fully cooperated.”
Barr’s verbal somersaults did little to silence Democrats’ demands that he resign, however, after it emerged that special counsel Robert Mueller himself had written a letter criticizing Barr’s brief and carefully worded synopsis of the report for generating “public confusion.”
In fact, Barr’s testimony before the Senate, in which he appeared to mischaracterize and at times directly challenge Mueller’s findings, only deepened the divide between the AG and the special counsel over the meaning of Mueller’s final report.
Barr even took a dig at Mueller, describing his letter as “a bit snitty.” He added: “I think it was probably written by one of his staff people.”
Barr’s testimony seemed carefully calibrated to present his preferred version of events without going so far as to expose himself to potential criminal liability for lying under oath, said Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor based in Chicago.
“I think Barr intentionally misled Congress,” Mariotti told VICE News. “He did a masterful job of making statements that were highly misleading and yet technically not lies, so he could escape liability for lying to Congress. To me, though, that’s really just additional evidence of his intent to deceive senators.”
“I think Barr intentionally misled Congress.”
But in mustering a defense of his own role and President Trump’s behavior, Barr bumped up against the content of the report itself, downplaying Mueller’s evidence and findings and claiming he still doesn’t understand why Mueller opted not to accuse Trump of committing the crime of obstruction of justice. At one point he even defended Trump’s “flipping” remarks regarding two key witnesses in the probe: the president’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen and his former campaign manager Paul Manafort.
Democrats responded with disbelief.
“You lied to Congress,” said Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono. “You’ve chosen to be the president’s lawyer and to side with him.”
Much of the hearing was taken up with Democratic senators’ attempts to catch Barr in a contradiction — and a few times, they appeared to back him into a corner.
In one notable exchange, Sen. Kamala Harris lured Barr into revealing he had decided not to charge Trump with obstruction without having examined the underlying evidence, despite describing that evidence as “insufficient.”
Republicans at the hearing sought to bolster Barr, and to change the subject to the origins of the investigation, which they have portrayed as a plan hatched by a handful of biased anti-Trump FBI investigators with the intention of pushing Trump’s campaign off the rails.
Barr repeatedly argued from Trump’s position, elaborating on the president’s frustrations with an investigation that Trump “felt” was “unfair” and “undermining his ability to govern.”
Barr declared himself baffled by the criticism leveled against him, at one point offering a soliloquy on the seemingly unfair scrutiny Trump has faced in his first two years, in light of the Mueller report’s final conclusion that Trump hadn’t entered a criminal conspiracy with Russian agents to try to tilt the 2016 election.
“How did we get to the point here where the evidence is now the president was falsely accused of colluding with the Russians, and accused of being treasonous, and the evidence now is that that was without a basis,” Barr said. “And two years of his administration has been dominated by the allegations that have now been proven false. To listen to some of the rhetoric, you would think the Mueller report found the opposite.”
He defended his decision to clear Trump of the charge of obstruction of justice in part by drawing a fine distinction between whether Trump had simply attempted to get Mueller “removed” or had him “fired.”
Barr argued that surely those couldn’t be seen as the same thing.
“There is a distinction between saying to someone, ‘Go fire him, go fire Mueller,’ and saying, ‘Have him removed based on conflict [of interest],’” Barr said. “They have different results.”
That gap, he maintained, explains away the episode in Mueller’s report in which Trump reached out to his then-White House counsel, Don McGahn, about having Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein pull Mueller off the investigation, over what Trump claimed were conflicts of interest.
In his telling, Barr appeared to accept at face value the idea that Trump was really alarmed by actual conflicts. Mueller, however, took direct aim at that very notion in his report, pointing out Trump had been told that claim was “ridiculous.”
Mueller wrote that “evidence shows that the President was not just seeking an examination of whether conflicts existed but instead was looking to use asserted conflicts as a way to terminate the Special Counsel.”
Barr is due for another round of congressional grilling on Thursday in the House of Representatives — if he agrees to show up.
Barr has objected to a Democratic plan to switch up the format to allow for dedicated counsels from each party ask him questions for straight 30-minute sessions — a setup that would leave less room for ambiguity and present more opportunity for direct follow-ups.
After Democrats announced their plan to shake up the format, however, Barr threatened to bail — in a standoff that, as of Wednesday afternoon, remained unresolved.
Cover: Attorney General William Barr arrives to testify during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 1, 2019, on the Mueller Report. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)