(Bloomberg) — Attorney General William Barr put his spin on Robert Mueller’s Russia report in the days — and hours — before the public got to see it. Now, he’ll face lawmakers who will press him to reconcile his findings with the special counsel’s.
In scheduled testimony before Senate and House panels on Wednesday and Thursday, Democrats will question Barr’s credibility after he gave President Donald Trump grounds to claim “total EXONERATION” from a report that stopped short of that. Republicans will prod Barr to deliver on his pledge to look into their assertion — and Trump’s — that the president’s 2016 campaign was the victim of government “spying.”
They will be the first hearings into Mueller’s 448-page report on Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential campaign, and Barr may prove to be one of the few administration officials to testify without a court fight. Trump pledged last week that “we’re fighting all the subpoenas” that have begun to flow from committees in the Democratic-controlled House.
It’s also the beginning of the Democrats’ deliberations over how far they want to pursue the evidence that Mueller laid out for them that Trump may have obstructed justice — and whether to consider that as part of an eventual move toward impeachment.
Barr’s testimony will begin Wednesday on friendlier territory in the Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee, where Chairman Lindsey Graham has tweeted that it’s “time to move on” from Mueller’s findings. Instead, he’s said he wants to pursue whether the Russia probe was tainted at its start in 2016 by anti-Trump bias and to review how the Justice Department and FBI handled the inquiry into Democrat Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.
While Democrats are in the minority on the Senate side, Barr is likely to be pressed by the three presidential candidates on the panel — Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris — who will seek a viral moment challenging the Trump appointee.
Then Barr is scheduled to go before the Democratic-controlled House Judiciary panel on Thursday. Already, there’s strife over the ground rules for that encounter.
Chairman Jerrold Nadler’s planned format calls for a round of five-minute question-and-answers with panel members followed by 30 minutes for each party, with their staff counsels permitted to do the questioning.
Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said Barr still plans to show up for the hearing but rejects being grilled by staff lawyers.
“The attorney general agreed to appear before Congress,” Kupec said in a statement Sunday. “Therefore, members of Congress should be the ones doing the questioning. He remains happy to engage with members on their questions regarding the Mueller report.”
Among expected questions: Whether Barr had prejudged the outcome of Mueller’s probe by writing a memo as a private citizen in 2018 arguing that a president can’t obstruct justice by asserting his executive powers, such as by his firing of former FBI Director James Comey.
“Barr is functioning as a defense attorney for the president. We will be asking him about that,” said Nadler, who has already subpoenaed the attorney general to provide Mueller’s full report without redactions as well as all the evidence behind it.
Ninety minutes before releasing his redacted version of Mueller’s report on April 18, Barr called a news conference where he elaborated on a four-page summary he’d issued the previous month. The attorney general said Mueller didn’t find that Trump’s presidential campaign colluded with Russians who interfered in the 2016 election.
Barr also said that Mueller closed his probe “without reaching any legal conclusions” on whether Trump obstructed justice — so the attorney general said that he and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein stepped in and concluded that there was no obstruction.
He said they made that call because “all our powers as prosecutors” are for the sole purpose of determining “yes or no, was alleged conduct criminal or not criminal?”
“Because the special counsel did not make that decision, we felt the department had to,” said Barr, who added that he found Trump had “non-corrupt motives.”
But Barr’s critics say he misrepresented both the tone and substance of Mueller’s voluminous report.
Although the investigation didn’t establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government, Mueller said his team “identified numerous links between the Russian government and the Trump Campaign.”
Mueller said he didn’t make a “traditional” prosecution judgment on obstruction, mainly because he decided to abide by a Justice Department policy that says a sitting president can’t be indicted.
But he cited at least 10 examples of efforts to interfere in the investigation and pointedly added, “If 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, however, we are unable to reach that judgment.”
All but inviting Congress to take up the issue, Mueller said he wanted to be certain he didn’t take actions that would “preempt constitutional processes for addressing presidential misconduct” — a hint that came complete with a footnote referring to impeachment.
That’s a step that Democratic leaders like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have signaled they’re far from ready to take despite a clamor for action among some of the party’s most liberal members.