90 Miles From Tyranny : 7 Big Moments in William Barr’s Senate Testimony on Mueller Report

Thursday, May 2, 2019

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

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...

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