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Kamala Harris’s Capable Questioning of William Barr

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Barr said that he had not, and neither had Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who had previously overseen the Mueller probe after Sessions recused himself. “We accepted the statements in the report as factual record,” he said. “We did not go underneath it to see whether or not they were accurate.”

Harris seemed to anticipate Barr’s answer, and pounced. “As the attorney general of the United States, you run the United States Department of Justice,” she began. “If in any U.S. attorney’s office around the country, 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?”

Barr tried to pass the decision off to Mueller, but Harris stopped him. “You made the decision not to charge him,” she declared.

Harris then questioned whether Rosenstein’s involvement in the decision was ethical given that the report documented how he was also a witness in the firing of FBI Director James Comey—an incident Mueller investigated for possible obstruction of justice. She asked Barr whether Rosenstein had been cleared by career officials in the department’s ethics office of potential conflicts of interest. Barr again seemed flustered, at one point turning around to aides to consult on his answer. Rosenstein was cleared of a conflict before Barr’s arrival in February, the attorney general eventually replied.

Soon, Harris’s time was up. She left the hearing soon after and called on Barr to resign. She won raves from Trump critics on Twitter who were frustrated by her Democratic colleagues’ inability to puncture Barr’s legal arguments. By late afternoon, she had sent out a fundraising email to capitalize on her performance.

Granted, Harris’s success on Wednesday was more style than substance; the revelations she elicited from Barr were noteworthy, but they weren’t exactly bombshells that will change Trump’s political fortunes. Nor did her questioning reveal much about what kind of president she’d be compared with Klobuchar or Booker, or any of her other rivals. The job of president is not that of a prosecutor or a senator.

But the crucible of presidential politics is mostly performative; more to the point, it’s a series of performances over many months, where voters can see how candidates handle pressure, how they seize or miss opportunities, how they use their intellect, how they debate and confront opponents. There will be plenty more of them before Democrats make their choice next year, and Barr’s testimony about the Mueller report, in all likelihood, will turn out to be a blip on that long road.

But Harris had seven minutes on Wednesday to show what she could do, and she seemed to make the most of it.

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