Once again, we could see unfolding on national television two competing versions of reality about the Trump government.
On the one side, during testimony by Atty. Gen. William P. Barr before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Democrats were willing to say that the Mueller Report had unearthed tons of unwarranted contacts between the 2016 Trump campaign and Russian operatives interested in disrupting the U.S. elections, and many attempts to obstruct the resulting investigation.
On the other, Republican questions shied away from anything that veered from the finding that those behaviors did not amount to prosecutable criminal charges. More to the point, this line of questions seemed aimed at shoring up the need for the attorney general to have decided against prosecuting obstruction of justice charges, and that there remains a need to look at the origins of the special counsel investigation itself.
So “truth” here depends on whether you tuned in during questions by committee Chairman Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) and other Republicans or ranking member Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Democrats.
The hearing unfolded as news broke in The Washington Post that Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III had written an extraordinary letter to Barr in late March that challenged Barr’s announcement about what the report had found. Mueller wrote in the previously undisclosed private letter to the Justice Department, that “The summary letter the Department sent to Congress and released to the public late in the afternoon of March 24 did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance of this office’s work and conclusions,” Mueller wrote. “There is now public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation. This threatens to undermine a central purpose for which the Department appointed the Special Counsel: to assure full public confidence in the outcome of the investigations.”
Barr on the defensive
So, we entered the hearings with Barr essentially having to defend his own decisions in the Mueller Report. It became clear from the first moments of testimony that Barr feels no remorse in misleading the public or Congress, is expert at manipulating language and word choices to find legal justification for his reasoning and his statements. At some points, in response to Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Barr acknowledged never looking at the evidence that Mueller had gathered, and it remained unclear as to whether he had even read the report before summarizing the top line results.
Setting aside Barr distinctions between Trump asking for Mueller’s “firing” and “removal,” in plain talk, it seemed that Barr was lying at times about efforts detailed in the obstruction investigation in the Mueller Report.
Thus, we were witnessing on live television the Barr weaseling over whether Mueller had found facts about such details as whether Trump had sought former White House counsel Donald McGahn’s cooperation in stopping Mueller’s investigation. At one point, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) noted that “Wow. That was some masterful hair-splitting,” in response to a Barr statement.
Indeed, Barr said outright that Trump’s statements to McGahn did not constitute obstruction. At another, in answer to a question, Barr said he thinks the evidence now shows that Trump was “falsely accused of colluding with the Russians and accused of being treasonous and accused of being a Russian agent.” Barr said the evidence shows that two years of Trump’s presidency have been consumed with those false charges, but that “to listen to some of the rhetoric, you would think the Mueller report found the opposite.”
A matter of trust
What was on display in this Judiciary Committee hearing was nothing less than Trust: Do we trust the attorney general to be an independent arbiter of fact, or is he a shill for the president who had appointed him? Do we trust an attorney general who substituted his own judgment for Mueller’s? Do we trust that Barr’s most narrow argument about whether the word “summary” means an accurate summation of what the report had said?
Why should we believe that Barr, who challenged those witnesses to Mueller, is an independent thinker?
The Senate hearings will be followed by another before the House Judiciary Committee, essentially going over the same ground.
Of course, the attorney general already has been under serious criticism for writing a public memo as a private citizen that argued the Mueller obstruction investigation had not been warranted. Since releasing the Mueller Report with its redactions, Barr has said that he is looking into potential FBI overreach and misbehavior in starting the investigation overall, including a suggestion that the FBI had “spied” on the Trump campaign.
In his public remarks about the Mueller Report, Barr underscored how Mueller laid out evidence on “both sides” of whether the president was guilty of a crime, giving the impression that Mueller was conflicted. But that’s not really true, according to the Mueller letter.
Perhaps his most cogent remark of the day was“We have to stop using the criminal justice process as a political weapon,” Barr said, stressing that “the job of the Justice Department is now over. The report is now in the hands of the American people; everyone can decide for themselves,” Barr added. “There’s an election in 18 months; that’s a very democratic process, but we’re out of it.”
I wish the attorney general could understand how unsettling it is for the public to have no trust in the top law enforcement official in the country.