Seven Big Moments in William Barr’s Senate Testimony on Mueller Report

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Amid partisan clashes over the aftermath of the special counsel’s Russia report, Attorney General William Barr faced tough questions Wednesday from Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Barr will not testify as scheduled Thursday before the House Judiciary Committee, however, after the Democrat-controlled panel voted to have staff lawyers question him. The attorney general has insisted on taking questions only from committee members. 

Speaking to the Senate committee, Barr addressed his release of a lightly redacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on his 22-month investigation. That probe concluded President Donald Trump and his associates did not conspire with the Russian government to win the 2016 election. 

More relevant to the hearing, where Mueller left open the question of whether Trump tried to obstruct the probe, Barr and his top deputy decided that the evidence did not support criminal charges.

Several Democrat senators on the Judiciary Committee demanded that Barr resign. 

The attorney general also talked about the Justice Department’s ongoing review of the Obama administration’s move to spy on the Trump campaign in 2016. 

Here’s a look at seven of the biggest moments from the hearing. 

1. Barr on Mueller’s Letter

The day before Barr’s testimony, a letter from Mueller to Barr leaked.

The special counsel’s letter, first reported by The Washington Post, stated that he didn’t think Barr’s four-page letter to Congress on March 24 characterizing Mueller’s main conclusions captured the context of the full report. 

Pointing to previous House testimony in which Barr said he didn’t know whether Mueller objected to the letter, Democrats Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Kamala Harris of California demanded that Barr resign. 

Barr had sent the letter to Congress on a Sunday, two days after the Mueller team delivered its report. 

“I offered Bob Mueller the opportunity to review that letter before it went out, and he declined,” Barr said. “On Thursday morning I received—it probably was received at the department Wednesday night or evening—but on Thursday morning I received the letter from Bob, the letter that has just been put in the record.” 

At one point, Barr told Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.: “The letter is a bit snitty, and I think it was probably written by one of his staff people.”

The attorney general went on to explain that he disagreed with Mueller’s suggestion that he quickly release summaries of the report’s Volume 1, about Russia’s meddling in the election, and Volume 2, about evidence of obstruction of justice:

I called Bob and said, ‘What’s the issue here?’ I asked him if he was suggesting that the March 24 letter was inaccurate, and he said no, but that the press reporting had been inaccurate and that the press was reading too much into it. And I asked him specifically what his concern was. He said his concern focused on his explanation of why he did not reach a conclusion on obstruction. He wanted more put out on that issue. 

[Mueller] argued for putting out summaries of each volume, the executive summaries that had been written by his office. … I told Bob that I was not interested in putting out summaries. I wasn’t going to put out the report piecemeal. I wanted to get the whole report out. 

Barr explained that the Justice Department needed time to review the 448-page Mueller report to redact certain grand jury information, national security information, and information relevant to pending cases. 

So, he said, he wanted to make public “bottom-line conclusions” as quickly as possible in the four-page letter:

The body politic was in a high state of agitation. There was massive interest in learning what the bottom-line result in Bob Mueller’s investigation was, particularly as it related to collusion. Former government officials were confidently predicting the president and members of his family were going to be indicted. There were people suggesting that if it took anytime to turn around the report and get it out, it would mean that the president was in legal jeopardy. So, I didn’t feel that it was in the public interest to allow this to go on for several weeks.

Barr said that’s why he issued the letter about the “bottom-line conclusions” of the report, “which is what the department normally does, make a binary determination: Is there a crime or isn’t there a crime.”

“I analogize it to after a trial; reading the verdict of the trial, not reading the full transcript of the trial,” he said. 

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., noted that in his testimony to a House Appropriations subcommittee ahead of the report’s release, Barr said he didn’t know whether Mueller disagreed with the wording of his letter. 

“Why did you say you were not aware of concerns when weeks before your testimony, Mr. Mueller had expressed concerns to you?” Leahy asked.

Barr said he considered only his discussion with Mueller himself in answering that question at the time. 

“The question was relating to unidentified members [of Mueller’s team] who were expressing frustration over the accuracy,” Barr said. “I talked directly with Bob Mueller, not members of his team.” 

“Mueller had never told me that the expression of the findings was inaccurate,” the attorney general said.

Barr repeatedly has said that Mueller is free to testify before Congress himself.

Asked during a White House press gaggle whether Mueller should testify, presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway said, “If he wants,” and expressed no objections. 

2. Investigation of Spying on Trump

In response to questions from several Republicans on the Judiciary Committee, Barr said he eventually would make his findings available to Congress after he reviews the pre-election government surveillance of a Trump campaign official and the origins of the counterintelligence operation against the Trump team. 

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., argued that the word “spying”—which Barr used in a previous hearing to describe what happened—isn’t commonly used by government agencies.

“My first job was in the CIA, and I don’t think the word spying has any pejorative connotation at all,” Barr said. “To me, the question is always whether or not it’s authorized and adequately predicated spying.”

The attorney general continued: 

I think spying is a good English word that in fact doesn’t have synonyms because it is the broadest word incorporating all forms of covert intelligence collection, so I’m not going to back off the word spying.

Frankly, we went back and looked at press usage and, up until all the faux outrage a few weeks ago, it’s commonly used in the press to refer to authorized activity. It’s commonly used by me.

Barr said he shared senators’ concerns about potential misuse of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act by the FBI, and said Justice Department staff are working on the review of how the department began a counterintelligence operation against a presidential candidate.  

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., asked Barr whether he would share his findings on spying with Congress.

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

3. Lindsey Graham’s Colorful Language

In his opening remarks, Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., read text messages from FBI officials that suggested improper conduct within the Justice Department during the 2016 campaign, as Trump became the Republican nominee facing Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton.

Graham read out loud from texts between lead FBI agent Peter Strzok and FBI lawyer Lisa Page, who reportedly were having an affair at the time, and didn’t censor himself.

Graham quoted Strzok’s texts to Page saying: “God, Trump is a loathsome human being. … Hillary should win 100 million to nothing. … Trump is a f—ing idiot.”

Graham said the full F-word, adding: “Sorry to the kids out there.”

4. Barr ‘Surprised’ by Mueller on Obstruction

Mueller’s report compiled 10 potential instances of Trump’s attempting to obstruct the Russia investigation after taking office in January 2017.

These included considering firing Mueller, actually firing FBI Director James Comey, and trying to convince his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, to “unrecuse” himself from overseeing the probe. 

Graham asked of Mueller’s leaving the conclusion on obstruction to Barr: “Were you surprised he was going to let you decide?”

Barr: “Yes, I was surprised. I think the function he was carrying out, the investigative and prosecutive function, is performed for the purpose … ”

Graham interrupted: “How many people did he actually indict?”

Barr said he didn’t know off the top of his head, but Mueller indicted more than two dozen Russian nationals and entities in connection with interfering in the election campaign, as well as several Trump campaign officials for crimes not directly related to Russia. 

Graham noted, “It was a lot,” and that the special counsel’s office, with a grand jury at its disposal, clearly had the capacity to indict.  

Barr said it was confusing to him why the special counsel carried on the probe without making a conclusion on obstruction of justice. 

“My question is, or was, why were those investigated if at the end of the day you aren’t going to reach a decision on them?” Barr said. “Generally speaking, an obstruction case typically has two aspects to it. One, usually there is an underlying criminality to it.”

The other, he said, is that when a person implicated is “concerned about that criminality being discovered, taking an inherently malignant act, as the Supreme Court has said, to obstruct that investigation such as destroying documents.”  

Nothing approaching that happened in this case, the attorney general said. 

Barr said he and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who announced his long-anticipated resignation this week, both reached the conclusion that Mueller’s findings on Trump didn’t reach the legal definition of obstruction of justice:

We disagreed with some of the legal theories and felt that many of the episodes described in the report would not constitute obstruction as a matter of law, [but] we didn’t rest our decision on that. We took each of the 10 episodes and we assessed them against the analytical framework that had been set forth by the special counsel, and we concluded that the evidence that had been developed during the special counsel’s investigation was not sufficient to determine that the president had committed an obstruction of justice offense.

5. Trump ‘Falsely Accused’

Democrats on the Judiciary Committee continued to insist that Trump had corrupt intent in wanting to obstruct the Mueller investigation. 

Some became annoyed when Barr said several times in testimony that the president had been “falsely accused” of conspiring with Russian operatives to win the presidential election. 

“If the president is being falsely accused, which the evidence now suggests, the accusations against him were false and he knew they were false, and he felt that this investigation was unfair, propelled by his political opponents, and was hampering his ability to govern,” Barr said. “That is not a corrupt motive for replacing an independent counsel.”

6. A Distinction on Ousting Mueller

Mueller’s report says that Trump asked his first White House counsel, Don McGahn, to get rid of Mueller as special counsel based on what the president considered conflicts of interests. 

When Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the ranking member of the committee, asked whether this was a crime, Barr responded that it was not. 

“There is a distinction between saying to someone, ‘Go fire him, go fire Mueller,’ and saying, ‘Have him removed based on conflict,’” Barr said.

Feinstein seemed puzzled and asked what was the difference. 

“If you remove someone for a conflict of interest, there would presumably be another person [brought in as special counsel],” Barr said.

7. Harris Questions Report and Rosenstein

When Barr again stated that he and Rosenstein decided together what to do about the obstruction case, Harris, the California Democrat, asked whether he looked at “underlying evidence.”

“You accepted the [Mueller] report as evidence,” Harris, appearing angry, said. “You did not question or look at the underlying evidence that supports the conclusions of the report?”

“We accepted the statements in the report as the factual record,” Barr later answered. “We did not go underneath it to see whether or not they were accurate. We accepted it as accurate.”

Harris seemed to be stunned that Barr would accept the Mueller report at face value:

As the attorney general of the United States, you run the United States Department of Justice. If in any U.S. attorney’s office around the country, the head of that office, when being asked to make a critical decision—in this case, the person who holds the highest office in the land—on  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?

Barr answered: “Well, that’s a question for Bob Mueller. He’s the U.S. attorney [on this case]. He’s the one who presents the report.”

It’s not standard procedure, Barr explained to Harris, to reinvestigate what the investigators already have done.

“This is not a mysterious process and [at] the Department of Justice, we have [prosecution] memos and declination memos every day coming up,” Barr said. “And we don’t go and look at the underlying evidence. We take the characterization of the evidence as true.”

Harris also pressed Barr about whether Rosenstein should have been part of the investigation, since the deputy attorney general had a role in Comey’s firing by Trump. Barr said he believed department officials had examined and resolved that matter long before he became attorney general Feb. 14.

“Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein is also a key witness in the firing of FBI Director Comey,” Harris said. “Did you consult with DOJ ethics officials before you enlisted Rod Rosenstein to participate in a charging decision, the subject of which he is also a witness?”

Harris was bringing up what had been a talking point among some Republicans over the past two years. She seemed unaware that Rosenstein had overseen most of the Russia investigation since Sessions recused himself in 2017, and that Rosenstein actually appointed Mueller.

“It’s my understanding he had been cleared already [to oversee the case],” Barr said.