Wednesday marked the first of two days of planned Capitol Hill testimony by Trump-appointed Attorney General Bill Barr. Today he appeared before the Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee, led by an eagerly supportive Sen. Lindsey Graham; soon after today’s hearings concluded, the House Judiciary Committee received word that Barr is now refusing to testify.
Given how poorly today went for Barr even in the more friendly venue of a Lindsey Graham-controlled Senate hearing, that move is not entirely unexpected. A summary of today’s events:
• Before Barr’s testimony began, House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff called on Barr to resign. Schiff says Barr “willingly misled the Congress” with previous testimony, stating he did not know whether special counsel Robert Mueller’s team was upset with Barr’s initial summary of Mueller’s conclusions. We now know that at the time of that statement, Barr had received a now-released letter from Mueller directly expressing his objections to Barr’s summary. Barr “knew his answer was false,” says Schiff.
• As an unsubtle preview of Republicans’ intentions for the day, committee chair and Sen. Lindsey Graham opened the hearings with a statement that he was “done with” the Muller report, immediately pivoting to questions about Hillary Clinton’s “emails.”
• In a particularly Trumpian moment, Barr appears to have misrepresented himself in telling the committee that he had “a problem” with how then-FBI director James Comey handled the Clinton email investigation. On the contrary, at the time Barr went so far as to publish an opinion piece in the Washington Post vigorously defending Comey’s handling of the case.
• Parts of Barr’s testimony were so full of misrepresentations and inaccuracies that networks found themselves obliged to break into hearing coverage to point them out.
• Barr’s primary defense against the revelation of Mueller’s letter was to claim that Muller was upset at press coverage of Barr’s initial summary, not the summary itself. That is at direct odds with what the Mueller letter actually said, and another reason Mueller’s testimony will be required. Barr also dodged the clear implications of Mueller choosing to make his objections to Barr’s summary known in writing, rather than via an informal phone call.
• Another Barr self-defense: That when he asserted the FBI was “spying on” the Trump campaign, a direct mirror of Trump’s own inflammatory rhetoric, in last month’s Senate testimony, he did not mean it in a “pejorative” way. Barr told an incredulous Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse that “‘spying’ is a good English word.”
• The highlight of the day might have been Sen. Mazie Hirono’s grilling of Barr, telling him outright: “You lied to Congress” and “should resign.”
• Another remarkable moment: Barr’s unwillingness to affirm that he had not shared with the White House information about ongoing criminal investigations that have been spun off from Mueller’s probe, some of which may themselves be targeted on members of Trump’s inner circle. Barr said it was “possible that the name of a case was mentioned,” but when asked whether he had provided any other information about the ongoing criminal probes? “I don’t recall.”
• Sen. Kamala Harris focused her time on whether Barr reviewed the underlying evidence backing Mueller’s report before coming to his own decision that Trump could not be charged with obstructive acts. Barr affirmed he did not, saying that he “accepted the statements in the report as factual record.”
• Republican questioning throughout the hearing seldom focused on the results of Mueller’s investigation. Instead, Republican senators focused their questioning on repeated demands that the intelligence and law enforcement communities be themselves investigated … for opening an investigation into Trump’s campaign to begin with.
• Sen. Graham ended the hearing as it began, declaring the investigations into Mueller’s conclusions to be “over” and that he would not be calling Mueller in to himself testify.
Barr is still scheduled to testify to the House Judiciary Committee tomorrow morning, despite the Department of Justice indicating that he is now refusing to do so. If he does not appear, committee Democrats are “likely” to push for holding him in contempt.