Hours after it was revealed special counsel Robert Mueller objected to Attorney General Bill Barr’s portrayal of his final report, Barr headed to Capitol Hill for his first congressional testimony since the report’s release.
Unsurprisingly, Barr’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee was a contentious affair. Many Senate Democrats tried to score some political points, but they also identified tangible frustrations the public has had with Barr’s rollout of the report.
Meanwhile, Republicans, who view the release of the report as the final word on the matter, were eager to turn back to their favorite political target: Hillary Clinton — with the exception of Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE), who tried to pin Barr down on where the line between Washington business-as-usual and outright corruption from foreign governments is. Barr himself deflected on all the most important questions, even refusing to pin down what the definition of the word “suggest” is.
It was a long day filled with dramatic moments, but here are some winners and losers, along with some of the most memorable video clips from the proceedings.
Winner: Foreign governments who want to interfere in US elections
Barr went to extreme lengths to normalize the Trump campaign’s extensive contacts with Russia. Barr hesitated before answering a question from Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) about whether presidential campaigns offered dirt on their opponents by foreign governments should report the offer to the FBI. The Trump campaign faced this exact scenario when top members of its campaign took a meeting in Trump Tower with a Kremlin-connected lawyer who was offering dirt on Hillary Clinton.
“If a foreign intelligence service does, yes,” Barr said, making a distinction between intelligence services and governments.
OMG -- Barr hesitates before acknowledging that presidential campaigns that are offered dirt from hostile foreign governments should probably contact the FBI pic.twitter.com/eqFkHjmBJj— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) May 1, 2019
At another point, under questioning by Ben Sasse, Barr seemed reluctant to acknowledge that it’s unacceptable for American political operatives to be on the payrolls of foreign governments.
“It depends on the specific circumstances, the nature of the agreement, who the person is representing — are they representing the interests of a foreign government? Are they a foreign agent?” Barr said, again trying to make careful distinctions. “It’s a slippery area.”
It would have been easy enough for Barr to say that campaigns who are offered campaign dirt from foreign governments should immediately report it to the FBI, and that American political operatives shouldn’t take money from foreign governments.
But he didn’t. And in the process, America’s top law enforcement official provided foreign governments with a blueprint of sorts if they want to work on behalf of a specific presidential candidate, as Russia did during its successful effort to help Trump win in 2016.
Winner: Mazie Hirono
Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) stood out by not pulling any punches during her questioning time. She immediately laid into Barr, saying “the American people know you are no different from Rudy Giuliani or Kellyanne Conway, or any of the other people who sacrificed their once decent reputations for the liar and grifter who sits in the Oval Office.”
Hirono then called on Barr to resign.
WOW -- @maziehirono *goes in* on Barr, says "the American people know you are no different from Rudy Giuliani or Kellyanne Conway, or any of the other people who sacrificed their once decent reputations for the liar and grifter who sits in the Oval Office." pic.twitter.com/nmENNZjyQL— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) May 1, 2019
While Hirono may have been the most aggressive senator, other Democratic women impressed as well. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) highlighted legislation she’s championed to prevent foreign interference in elections, along with the White House’s effort to stop it from becoming law. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) left Barr stammering for a response after she grilled him about his evasiveness regarding whether the White House has pressured him to open investigations into his political opponents. Citing details from the Mueller report, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) forced Barr to acknowledge there is in fact evidence that Trump obstructed justice.
Sen. Patrick Leahy’s (D-VT) tough lines of questioning about Barr’s misleading congressional testimony and implausible comments about Trump fully cooperating with the investigation stood out. Even committee chair Lindsey Graham (R-SC) was impressed — after Leahy pressed Barr about his apparent lack of concern that the Trump campaign never reported any of Russia’s interference activities on his campaign’s behalf to the FBI, Graham commended him.
“Very well done,” Graham said.
Winner: Donald Trump
One of the main reasons Barr is attorney general is Trump was frustrated that his predecessor, Jeff Sessions, didn’t do a better job protecting him from the Mueller investigation.
Trump has found his man. Throughout the hearing, Barr acted more like the president’s personal lawyer than the attorney general. At one point he even portrayed a response to Klobuchar as “what the president’s lawyers would say,” completely blurring the lines between the DOJ and White House.
If you didn't know the context of what was going on here it'd be hard to tell whether Barr is the attorney general of the United States or Trump's defense attorney pic.twitter.com/KitXojIlfE— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) May 1, 2019
Barr didn’t have a good answer for why he withheld incriminating information about Trump’s interactions with then-White House counsel Don McGahn from the letter he sent to Congress summarizing the Mueller report’s bottom-line conclusions. He dodged questions from Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) about whether he’s been in communication with the White House about ongoing criminal investigations pertaining to Trump and his businesses. He dismissed Trump’s lies, saying “I’m not in the business of determining when lies are told to the American people. I’m in the business of determining when a crime has been committed.”
Barr even rewrote history, telling Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) “there’s no indication that [the Trump campaign] engaged in the conspiracy to hack” even though Trump publicly encouraged Russian hackers to go after Hillary Clinton during his final news conference of the campaign.
The attorney general justified Trump’s moves to try and oust Mueller shortly after he was appointed by making a painstaking distinction between “firing a special counsel outright” and “having a special counsel removed for conflict [of interest]” — even though he couldn’t specify what that conflict was — and went as far to excuse Trump’s obstructive behaviors on the basis that he was frustrated over being “falsely accused.”
BARR: "As a matter of law, I think the department's position would be that the president can direct determination for the replacement of a special counsel."— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) May 1, 2019
He goes on to say he believes that Trump was "falsely accused." pic.twitter.com/NfXszVz6bb
Now that Mueller’s investigation is wrapped up, Barr made it clear that Trump no longer has anything to fear from the DOJ. In fact, given Barr’s evasive response about whether he’s communicated with the White House about investigation of Trump, it appears that the attorney general may be actively helping the president.
Loser: Lindsey Graham
Graham, the Judiciary Committee chair, began the hearing by admitting he hasn’t read the entirety of the Mueller report. Things didn’t get much better from there. While reading text messages fired FBI agent Peter Strzok sent to Lisa Page during the presidential campaign, Graham accidentally provided Trump haters with a new ringtone.
Graham used both his introductory statement and questioning time to push conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton and the FBI’s investigation of her use of a private email server. He also blatantly mischaracterized Mueller’s findings, claiming Mueller “concluded there was no collusion” when in fact Mueller laid out plenty of evidence of collusion, just not enough in his view to prosecute.
Loser: Americans who want to move past other 2016 controversies
Graham was far from alone in focusing his questions on alleged anti-Trump bias within the Obama-era FBI and DOJ, and Hillary Clinton’s emails. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) honed in on why Obama didn’t do more to prevent Russian interference back in 2016, ignoring the fact that no one did more to prevent Obama from countering Russian efforts than Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) called for Barr to investigate the Mueller team’s alleged leaks. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) bemoaned that Barr was getting “the Kavanaugh treatment.”
Sasse’s thoughtful line of questioning stood out by contrast.
Barr seems reluctant to even admit that having people working in US political campaign who are on the payrolls of foreign governments is bad pic.twitter.com/KGpPz7VvrR— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) May 1, 2019
But the hearing made clear that Republicans plan to deflect from the unflattering portrait of Trump the Mueller report paints by continuing to try and gin up conspiracies about Hillary Clinton and the DOJ. And Barr seems eager to play along.
Loser: William Barr
Barr indicated that he’s “reviewing” the origins of the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation of the Trump campaign — in other words, he’s indulging Trump’s request to investigate the investigators — and for the second time in a month, he validated Trump’s unfounded claim that the FBI was “spying” on his campaign.
At numerous points during the hearing, Barr played semantic games to dodge questions, including raising questions about the meanings of common words like “suggest.”
Barr’s hairsplitting at one point left Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) speechless. He later made an unconvincing case to Whitehouse that his use of the loaded term “spying” to describe the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign isn’t meant to suggest anything nefarious.
WHITEHOUSE: In your recent testimony, you referred to authorized DOJ activities as "spying." Have you ever done that before?— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) May 1, 2019
BARR: I don't think the term has any pejorative connotation. I think spying is a good English word that in fact doesn't have synonyms. It was off the cuff pic.twitter.com/onqXGogxGt
Barr appeared to be unfamiliar with key parts of the Mueller report and admitted he did no work of his own reviewing the evidence Muller cites in the report before deciding, along with Rosenstein, to clear the president of obstruction of justice charges.
The hearing ended on a fitting note — with Barr stonewalling Blumenthal’s request to see the notes Barr’s team took about his recent phone call with Mueller. During that call, the special counsel expressed frustration about Barr’s handling of his final report.
“Why should you have them?” Barr said.
Harris left the hearing and called for Barr to resign. A short time later, news broke that Barr no longer plans to show up to testify before the Democratic-controlled House Judiciary Committee on Thursday.
Lindsey Graham, however, has seen enough. Despite Democratic calls for a hearing with Mueller, the committee chair said that his interest in the issue is “over” unless Mueller disagrees with Barr’s testimony.