The high legal and political stakes surrounding Attorney General William Barr’s handling of Robert Mueller’s Russia probe were on full display Wednesday, during a contentious hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Barr battled back over suggestions that he mischaracterized the Mueller report, as Democrats peppered him with questions about his differences with the special counsel.
“You lied,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, referring to Barr’s earlier testimony to lawmakers, when he said he didn’t know whether Mueller supported his initial conclusion.
Other Democrats suggested Barr misled them when he responded to a question from Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., last month, several weeks after Mueller had sent Barr a letter stating concerns about how the report into the Russia investigation was initially presented.
Even before Wednesday’s political fireworks during the Senate panel’s hearing, Van Hollen called on Barr to resign. Several other Democrats also said Wednesday that Barr should step down.
Hearing makes clear gap between Barr and Mueller
Barr didn’t back down from his decision to issue a four-page summary when the report was initially completed.
“The letter’s a bit snitty, and I think it was probably written by one of his staff people,” Barr said.
Barr stated he felt a responsibility to present the bottom line conclusions from the report when he received it, adding that he was surprised it didn’t include a firm conclusion on the issue of obstruction of justice and President Donald Trump.
“You, in effect, exonerated or cleared the president,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.
Barr denied that.
“No, I didn’t exonerate,” Barr said. “I said that we did not believe that there was sufficient evidence to establish an obstruction offense, which is the job of the Justice Department.”
The tension between Mueller’s staff and the attorney general has become more evident in the weeks since the report was completed, then released last month.
In his testimony, Barr discussed the phone call he made to Mueller, after he received his letter in March.
“I asked him, specifically, what his concern was,” Barr said. “And he said his concern focused on his explanation of why he did not reach a conclusion on obstruction and he wanted more put out on that issue.”
Barr said he didn’t want to put out the report in a “piecemeal” fashion and believes that it now speaks for itself.
But the report has become a highly volatile political document. During Wednesday’s hearing, Republicans repeatedly noted how exhaustive the investigation was and that it didn’t find criminal wrongdoing against the president.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, acknowledged he hasn’t read the whole 400-page report.
“Most of the report, for me, is over,” Graham said.
But it’s clear Congress is far from done with the report.
Democrats are still struggling with the issue of impeachment and divisions within the party over how to move forward. Republicans, meanwhile, have called on Barr to do more to dig into the origins of the Russia investigation, suggesting possible misconduct related to counterintelligence involving the president.
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