In the wake of a bombshell revelation that special counsel Robert Mueller took issue with the way William Barr described his Russia probe’s findings, the attorney general came to Capitol Hill to testify about his handling of the 448-page Mueller report in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
I am watching it live and offering key takeaways from the hearing in real time. They’re below.
Graham, the chairman of the Judiciary committee, has stood out over the first two-plus years of Donald Trump’s time in the White House for his drastic about-face on the President. The South Carolina senator went from calling Trump a “kook” who was unfit for office during the 2016 GOP primary to being one of the President’s biggest advocates and allies in Congress.
1. Lindsey Graham shows his pro-Trump colors
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Graham kept up his pro-Trump work during his opening statement on Wednesday. He incorrectly said that Mueller asked Barr to make a conclusion about whether or not Trump had obstructed justice in his actions related to the special counsel probe; Mueller did not do that at all – simply not making a recommendation of his own about Trump and obstruction, noting that the Office of Legal Counsel made clear a sitting president could not be charged.
Then Graham turned to a favorite subject of the President: The text messages – badmouthing Trump – between then-FBI official Peter Strzok and Lisa Page during the 2016 election. Graham promised an investigation into those text messages as well as into the origins of the FBI’s counter-intelligence probe – up to and including questions about the FISA warrant granted the FBI to surveil Carter Page. As many people on Twitter quickly noted, if name-calling Trump during the 2016 election was a crime, then Graham himself would be in jail right now.
One example from February 2016: “Donald Trump is not a conservative Republican. He’s an opportunist. He’s not fit to be President of the United States.”
2. Barr tries to (re)explain what he was doing with four-page letter
Now that we know that Mueller took issue with the way that Barr described the report in his summary letter on March 24, the AG sought to re-classify what he meant to do with the letter. He compared it to offering a verdict in a trial, with the transcript of the proceedings (the Mueller report) to come out later. Barr said that public interest was such – and the stakes were so high – that he felt the need to offer the summary or verdict immediately after receiving the report.
To hear Barr tell it then, what happened with his letter was all a big misunderstanding. (“We were not trying to summarize the report,” Barr told the Judiciary committee on Wednesday.) It was never meant to fully categorize the nature of Mueller’s investigations, according to Barr; that misunderstanding is why Mueller wasn’t thrilled with Barr’s letter.
3. Barr blames the media for Mueller’s reaction to his letter
Asked what, specifically, Mueller took issue with in his four-page summary letter, Barr said that the special counsel was unhappy with the description of obstruction as it relates to the President; “The press was reading too much into it,” Barr said of what he took from the phone conversation with Mueller on March 28.
But that’s not at all what Mueller said in the March 27 letter to Barr, which was released Wednesday morning. There’s no mention of the media in that letter. In fact, Mueller seems to directly criticize Barr’s handling of the letter. Wrote Mueller:
“The summary letter the Department sent to Congress and released to the public late in the afternoon of March 24 did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance of this office’s work and conclusions,” Mueller wrote. “There is now public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation.”
4. The difference between “firing” and “removal for conflict”
Barr tried to thread a very narrow needle in explaining why President Trump telling then White House counsel Don McGahn to get rid of Mueller was not obstruction of justice. Barr claimed that Trump never told McGahn to “fire” Mueller but rather to remove him from his position due to alleged conflicts of interest. The difference, according to Barr? Firing Mueller would eliminate the special counsel while removing Mueller for cause would ensure a new individual would be named to carry on the special counsel investigation. Therefore, no obstruction. That’s slicing the onion very, very thinly.
One more thing: In May 2017, the Department of Justice made clear that Mueller had no ethical conflicts and was perfectly capable of overseeing the special counsel investigation. A month later, Trump told McGahn to remove Mueller for conflicts of interest. So, how did Trump not already know that the DOJ had said no such conflicts existed?
5. Barr has “questions” about the origins of the FBI counterintelligence probe
If you blinked, you might have missed this exchange between Graham and Barr:
GRAHAM: “Do you share my concerns about the counterintelligence probe and how it was started?”
Big deal. Barr’s agreement with Graham means that the attorney general is now at odds with both the FBI and the Mueller report, which made clear that the counterintelligence probe began after the Australians approached the US – following the release on WikiLeaks of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee – to tell them that a one-time Trump aide named George Papadopoulos had told an Australian diplomat that the Russians had dirt on Hillary Clinton.
Barr’s statement on Wednesday puts him – or at least potentially puts him – much more in line with Trump, who has repeatedly claimed that the counterintelligence investigation was based on an opposition research document put together by former British spy Christopher Steele.
(Steele’s work was paid for, at times, by the DNC and the Clinton campaign.)
6. Barr won’t be apologizing for saying “spying”
Last month, in a Capitol Hill hearing, Barr said that he believed “spying” had occurred on the Trump campaign in 2016. Controversy followed, as national security officials insisted that the AG referring to the legal use of a FISA warrant to surveil Carter Page was deeply irresponsible.
On Wednesday, Barr refused to back down from the use of that word – insisting that “spying is a good English word that in fact doesn’t have synonyms because it is the broadest word incorporating really all forms of covert intelligence collection.” Challenged by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island) as to whether the term “spying” is used commonly in the Department of Justice, Barr retorted: “It’s commonly used by me.”
7. Try to follow Barr’s logic on the Mueller letter
The facts are these: More than a week after Barr received Mueller’s letter expressing concern about how the AG’s summary letter had characterized the obstruction evidence – and talked to Mueller on the phone about it – he appeared before Congress. And he had this exchange with Florida Democratic Rep. Charlie Crist:
CRIST: Reports have emerged recently, General, that members of the special counsel’s team are frustrated at some level with the limited information included in your March 24 letter, that it does not adequately or accurately portray the report’s findings. Do you know what they are referencing with that?
BARR: No, I don’t.
Asked about that moment on Wednesday, Barr explained what looks like willful obfuscation – basically – this way: I didn’t know what specific “reports” Crist was referring to or who on the special counsel’s team he was talking about. Therefore, my answer is accurate.
Which is, well, whoa. Or, better put, it is a hugely legalistic answer to the question of whether Barr misled Crist and the broader country. Common sense dictates that, when asked about whether he was aware of any frustrations from the special counsel regarding his four-page letter, the letter from Mueller – and their subsequent phone conversation – would jump immediately to mind
Barr can make a lawyerly argument that he didn’t understand what Crist was specifically referring to in his question. But that doesn’t pass the smell test.
8. Barr made clear he did not “exonerate” Trump on obstruction
Pressed on his critical decision not to charge Trump with obstructing the Mueller probe, Barr made a bit of news. Here’s what he said: “I didn’t exonerate. I said that we didn’t believe that there was sufficient evidence to establish an obstruction offense.”
That’s broadly in keeping with how the Mueller report described its own findings on Trump and obstruction, writing this:
“(I)f we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, we are unable to reach that judgment. … Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
All of that is VERY different than how Trump himself has described the findings of the Mueller report and what Barr decided after reading it. “No Collusion, No Obstruction, Complete and Total EXONERATION. KEEP AMERICA GREAT!,” Trump tweeted on March 24.
The key thing to remember here: Not bringing charges is not the same thing as innocence or exoneration.
9. Barr equivocates on White House influence
California Sen. Kamala Harris asked Barr a simple question: Did anyone in the White House ask or suggest that he open an investigation into a person or people?
Barr was taken aback, asking Harris to repeat the question. He then said he wasn’t entirely sure what she meant by the word “suggest.”
All of that potentially suggests – ahem – that someone in the White House has either asked or suggested that Barr and the DOJ look into a matter. Which is interesting, to say the least.