Attorney General Bill Barr was hired to manage the cover-up of Donald Trump and his campaign's ties to Russian efforts to undermine American democracy. After his appearance before the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday, there can no doubt left that Barr is very good at his job. He stonewalled, he dodged and he dissembled with an acuity developed from decades of practice concealing Republican malfeasance.
The ostensible purpose of the hearing was questioning Barr about the budgetary requests of the Department of Justice, but committee members wasted no time addressing what chairman Rep. José Serrano, D-N.Y., called "the elephant in the room." That would be special counsel Robert Mueller's report, running into the hundreds of pages, on the Trump campaign's contacts with Russian operatives and Trump's attempts to obstruct justice. Barr has yet to release Mueller's report but has promised to do so soon, after appropriate "redactions" are complete.
Repeatedly, Democrats tried to expose that Barr is not entirely being honest when he claims, as he did during Tuesday's hearing, that he believes it's "important for the public to have an opportunity" to read Mueller's full report. They repeatedly confronted him about his choice to release a four-page letter that suggested Trump had been cleared of all wrongdoing in lieu of the full report, and raised concerns that Barr will abuse his redaction power to hide any information in the full report that would be politically damaging to the president.
As Serrano pointed out, Barr portrayed his four-page letter as a reasonable summary of Mueller's findings, but the New York Times reports that members of Mueller's team are complaining that Barr "failed to adequately portray the findings of their inquiry and that they were more troubling for President Trump than Mr. Barr indicated." As Rep. Charlie Crist, D-Fla., noted in particular, Barr's own rules for redaction of the report give him quite a bit of leverage to hide all sorts of information.
Barr's strategy at deflecting these inquiries was simple but effective: Be as boring as humanly possible. When answering questions about the Mueller report, Barr took on a quiet, droning tone, playing the role of an unremarkable bureaucrat whose only interest is in following the law and who has no particular investment in the outcome. Barr promised that the report would be ready "within a week," but spoke about it in tones meant to imply that it was of no more general interest than, say, a USDA report on fertilizer levels.
“I’ve said what I’m going to say," Barr said under questioning from Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., about the report. He hid behind the "wait for the full report" excuse to justify this, using a passionless affect to deflect suspicions that he's actively involved in a cover-up.
Interestingly, the only time Barr dropped the dull demeanor was when Democrats pushed him on the unrelated issue of why the Department of Justice is now backing a legally ridiculous court challenge to Affordable Care Act. Barr, who reportedly objected to this move by the administration, grew testy and combative when asked about the shoddy legal reasoning behind the decision, suggesting he's not particularly pleased with Trump for putting him in this position. But you know, not so much to abandon the crucial work of shielding Trump from legal accountability for his behavior regarding the Russia investigation.
For people well-versed with the legal issues, it was easy enough to see through Barr's "stodgy bureaucrat" character, particularly when Crist questioned him. When Crist asked about Trump's claim of total exoneration, despite Mueller's explicit statement that the report "does not exonerate" the president, Barr pretended that determining the meaning of the word "exonerate" was above his pay grade.
And in trying to justify his four-page letter — which he now insists was not meant as a summary — Barr told Crist that he was only interested in "bottom line conclusions," which he reduced to a "binary: charges or no charges."
People who have followed the Mueller drama closely will recognize how dishonest it is to hide behind the recommendation of no charges. We know that the Justice Department has a standing policy that sitting presidents cannot be indicted, and also that Barr has explicitly gone on the record with his personal legal theory that no president could even meet the legal definition of "obstruction of justice". All of which means that the lack of charges doesn't mean a lack of evidence to justify charges.
For most people who aren't as obsessed with the Mueller investigation, that line of reasoning is likely too confusing to follow. They'll hear the "charges or no charges" rationale for Barr's cover-up behavior, and believe that sounds like common sense. The bland tone of Barr's presentation will do a lot of the work, serving to conceal how the attorney general is dodging accountability and covering for the president with this argument.
Meanwhile, as expected, committee Republicans acted like a bunch of corrupt clowns who have long since lost any regard for the truth, if they ever had it in the first place. Rep. Robert Aderholt of Alabama compared demands to see the Mueller report in full to a "grassy knoll conspiracy theory." Rep. Tom Graves of Georgia worked himself into a lather of outrage that anyone would think they're entitled to see the full report, and floated a genuine conspiracy theory of his own, claiming that he's heard that some people plan to leak the report against Barr's wishes. This idea was so silly that even Barr dropped the boring office-drone act and seemed surprised that Graves would suggest such a thing.
Will Barr's strategy work? As soon as the hearing was over, he dropped the "stuffy lawyer" face and broke into a massive grin, suggesting that he felt he'd pulled it off. Indeed, he may well be successful at his apparent strategy, which involves pretending to be transparent while holding back as much information as possible for as long as possible. He was able to trick the media into claiming a "Mueller report" had been released, when it was just his informationally void four-page letter. Now his claims that the real thing will be out "within a week" are already getting heavy play, even though there's every reason to fear it will be so heavily redacted as to be useless.
But there's a thread of hope: Democrats on the committee seemed ready to fight. Rep. Ed Case of Hawaii noted that Barr's redaction rules are large enough to "drive a truck through" and that he fully expects a report with huge amounts of blacked-out information. If, as Democrats expect, Barr releases another "Mueller report" that is not actually the Mueller report, there's every sign that they plan to raise hell and work to break through the blatant cover-up. Barr may be smiling now, but it may not last.