Attorney General William Barr Acts as Donald Trump’s Human Shield on Capitol Hill
This being a hearing of the august Senate Judiciary Committee—in which the Attorney General of the United States had been called to testify about a four-hundred-and-forty-eight-page report into a Russian effort to sabotage the 2016 election, the question of whether the sitting President and his aides were complicit therein, and possible obstruction of justice on the part of that same President—it was inevitable that the chairman of the committee, Senator Lindsey Graham, would open the proceedings by cutting to the chase: the F.B.I.’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s e-mails.
“What do we know?” Graham asked. “We know that the person in charge of investigating hated Trump’s guts.” The Republican from South Carolina read out some edited highlights of a text-message exchange between Peter Strzok, the former F.B.I. agent who led the e-mails probe, and his then colleague, Lisa Page, with whom he was romantically involved, including one in which Strzok said, “Trump is a fucking idiot.”
Back in 2016, you will recall, Graham himself described Donald Trump as a “kook” who was unfit for office. These days, of course, he is a loyal member of Team Trump, and so is the rumpled figure who sat in the witness chair on Wednesday, Bill Barr. In his opening monologue, Graham asked Barr if he shared his concern about the issuance of a FISA-court warrant to conduct surveillance on Carter Page, a member of the Trump campaign. Barr said, “Yes.” He gave the same answer when Graham asked if he shared his concerns about the origins of the F.B.I.’s counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign. Finally, Graham asked Barr if he agreed that the “lack of professionalism in the Clinton e-mail investigation is something we should all look at.” Again, Barr replied, “Yes.”
If more confirmation were needed that Trump has succeeded in converting the Russia investigation from a legal proceeding into a partisan political battle, in which anything goes and objective truth is of little regard, Wednesday’s hearing provided it. Rather than focussing on the details contained in the Mueller report, one Republican after another sought to change the subject to Clinton, Fusion GPS, and Christopher Steele. When they did refer to the report, the Republicans largely confined themselves to Barr’s repeated assertion that it cleared Trump and his aides of colluding with the Russians. “Is there any evidence that suggests that Vladimir Putin quote-unquote has something on President Trump?” Senator Mike Lee, of Utah, asked Barr. “None that I’m aware of,” the Attorney General replied. “Is there any evidence that you’re aware of that suggests even remotely that President Trump is a Russian agent?” Lee went on. Barr gave the same reply. Of the more damaging material contained in the Mueller report, such as the Trump campaign’s efforts to obtain hacked material and the President asking the White House counsel to lie on his behalf, the Republicans feigned ignorance.
Barr, for his part, remained poised. Many witnesses would have been rattled by the revelation, on the eve of the hearing, that Mueller, on March 27th, had sent Barr an official letter complaining that the exculpatory four-page summary that the Attorney General had issued three days earlier threatened to undermine “full public confidence in the outcome of the investigations.” Barr didn’t waver. Allowing that Mueller had also asked him to supplement his summary by publishing the introduction and executive summaries contained in the report’s two volumes, Barr stated flatly, “I told Bob that I was not interested in putting out summaries and I wasn’t going to put out the report piecemeal. I wanted to get the whole report out.” When Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island, pressed him on this matter, Barr got a bit testy. “Bob Mueller is the equivalent of a U.S. Attorney,” he said. “His work concluded when he sent his report to the Attorney General. At that point, it was my baby.” Later in the hearing, Barr described Mueller’s letter as “a bit snitty.”
Having asserted droit du seigneur in brushing off the special counsel’s entirely justifiable concerns, Barr also sought to fend off accusations that he had misled Congress after receiving Mueller’s letter. “Why did you testify on April 9 that you didn’t know the concerns being expressed by Mueller’s team?” Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, asked him. Barr replied that he hadn’t heard from members of Mueller’s team; he had spoken to the special counsel himself. Under questioning from Whitehouse, he repeated this explanation—prompting Whitehouse to remark, “That’s some masterful hairsplitting.”
Nobody doubts Barr’s mental acuity. The question is why he has adopted the role of Trump’s heat shield and legal advocate with such enthusiasm. As the hearing progressed, he went well beyond the statements he made on April 18th, when he announced that he and Rod Rosenstein, the Deputy Attorney General, had taken it upon themselves to conclude that the President had not obstructed justice. At many points, his answers stretched credulity.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California, honed in on Mueller’s finding that, in the summer of 2017, Trump asked Don McGahn, the White House counsel, to deny a New York Times article that reported that Trump had ordered McGahn to fire the special counsel. “Does existing law prohibit efforts to get a witness to lie?” Feinstein asked. Barr said that it does, and he also conceded that McGahn had come away believing the President ordered him to push Rosenstein to invoke conflict of interest against Mueller. But Barr insisted that there was an important difference between Trump simply ordering McGahn to fire Mueller and asking him to tell Rosenstein to remove him because of alleged conflicts of interest. In the latter case, Barr suggested, another special counsel would be appointed. Feinstein wasn’t buying it. “You still have a situation where a President essentially tries to change the lawyer’s account in order to prevent further criticism of himself,” she said. To which, Barr responded, “Well that’s not a crime.”
In the afternoon session, a number of Democratic Presidential candidates questioned Barr. Amy Klobuchar, who took Barr through many of the episodes detailed in the Mueller report about Trump possibly obstructing justice, noted that she had learned in law school to “look at the totality of the evidence.” Cory Booker accused Barr of putting his “own credibility into question” and normalizing Trump’s aberrant behavior. Kamala Harris got him to admit that neither he nor Rosenstein had reviewed all of the evidence underlying the Mueller report before they concluded that there wasn’t a case for obstruction-of-justice charges against Trump. Later in the afternoon, Harris and Booker both called on Barr to resign.
There is no chance of that happening. Before the hearing wrapped up, the Attorney General again portrayed Trump as a wronged man. “How did we get to the point here, where the evidence is now that the President was falsely accused of colluding with the Russians, accused of being treasonous, accused of being a Russian agent?” he said to the Republican senator Marsha Blackburn. “Two years of his Administration have been dominated by allegations that have now been proven false. To listen to some of the rhetoric, you would think that the Mueller report had found the opposite.”
Barr was due back on Capitol Hill, on Thursday morning, to testify to the Democrat-controlled House Judiciary Committee, which has confirmed that it wants him to answer questions from staff lawyers. Barr had previously objected to that format, and, on Wednesday evening, the Justice Department informed the Committee that he isn’t going to show up. With its Democratic members already preparing to issue a subpoena to obtain an unredacted version of the Mueller report, the story won’t end here.