There’s no great mystery about what Attorney General William Barr did Wednesday during his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. He knows that Senate Democrats don’t have the votes or the power to do anything substantial to impair his tragic choice to protect President Trump from the substantiated allegations against him. And so the nation’s chief law enforcement official and top prosecutor, at taxpayer expense, spent hours spinning like a defense attorney with his client’s liberty on the line. If every prosecutor was so keen to forgive and forget compelling evidence of criminal conduct the nation’s prisons would be empty.
It was as disgraceful a performance by an attorney general as I have seen in 22 years as a legal analyst and commentator. And I say that having extensively covered the hapless appearances of Alberto Gonzales. He was the attorney general at the heart of the Bush administration’s U.S. Attorney scandal a decade ago. At least he had the excuse of being as dumb as a rock. Barr is no dummy. He knows precisely what he’s doing. His audience is an audience of one. It always has been. And he made it clear Wednesday, as if it had not been before, that he is no honest broker for the Justice Department. He’s just another hack.
Over and over again, Barr refused to show a shred of independence from Trump or even pretend he needed to. The attorney general refused even to acknowledge what we all know to be true and what littered the Mueller report: that the president lied and deceived, repeatedly, for a long period, to protect himself and his political interests. When pressed for candor or to simply be intelligible by Democratic senators, Barr filibustered or used that hoary old lawyer’s trick of pretending not to understand the question or the definitions of the words used in it. Watch his exchange with Sen. Amy Klobuchar, for example, to get a sense of how that went.
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Never mind the legal definitions of obstruction of justice or conspiracy, or the procedural standards under which federal prosecutors are supposed to operate, or the superheated politics of our time, Barr told lawmakers that he began to work on his letter exonerating Trump before he received the Mueller report. In response to a question by Sen. Kamala Harris, for example, he even conceded that neither he or Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein have eve reviewed the underlying evidence that the special counsel compiled. Why complicate their cover-up by educating themselves about the facts of the case?
Much has been written — maybe too much has been written — about the once-cozy relationship between Barr and Mueller back in the day. On this day, the attorney general derided the special counsel repeatedly when pressed to explain why he falsely summarized Robert Mueller’s work. It was a cowardly thing to do. Barr could simply have done the honorable thing and told the committee that he felt it was his job, as attorney general, to present Mueller’s work in the light most favorable to the president. That would be nuts, and against legal and political tradition, but at least it would have been a moment of honesty in a day with so little of it.
It’s jarring to hear federal prosecutors talk so timidly about “corrupt intent” in the context of this most corrupt administration when you consider how many thousands of men and women are sitting in a cell somewhere because some prosecutor took a sharply more expansive view of such intent. It’s jarring to get the feeling, through hours of contentious testimony, that Barr wasn’t remotely interested in signaling to lawmakers, or the rest of us, that he can be trusted to shepherd the 14 or so other active federal investigations that Mueller referred to prosecutors in New York and other offices around the nation. No wonder the White House is so pleased.
If the hearing reminded us that Trump is getting his money’s worth out of Barr it also informs us of how congressional Republicans are going to handle the essence of the Mueller report. Maybe I missed it, it’s possible, but I did not see or hear a single Republican member of the committee say a single critical thing about the president in the wake of Mueller’s work. Nor was anyone on that side of the room particularly critical of Barr. Instead, from Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican, we got a promise at the end of the hearing that there was no need to call Mueller himself to testify before the committee.
Lapdog Lindsey instead made it clear through the course of the day, as did virtually every other Republican member, that the Judiciary Committee doesn’t want to look further into the evidence Mueller compiled of Trump’s misconduct. They don’t want to hear from former White House Counsel Don McGahn, whom Trump asked to lie, or from anyone else who chronicled the ways in which the president tried to cover up his Russia ties. Instead, the same folks who gave us Kenneth Starr and endless Benghazi hearings now say they will spend their time trying to dig up more dirt about Hillary Clinton and trying to bash the FBI. Great news for the Russians.
We learned today that if there is to be any meaningful oversight of the Justice Department it’s not going to come from the old Republicans who have been so keen for decades to keep a close eye on the Justice Department. It’s going to come instead from the House of Representatives, controlled by Democrats, where Barr heads Thursday for another hearing (although the DOJ now says that it may not happen). It will have to be the House that subpoenas Mueller or McGahn to testify. It will have to be the House that calls Barr onto the carpet for his attempt to trick the American people into thinking Mueller’s report was kinder and gentler to the president than it actually was.
“We’re out of it,” Barr said at one point. “We have to stop using the criminal justice process as a political weapon.” He said this with a straight, stern face, lined by decades of Washington gravitas, as though he actually meant it. We know he didn’t. The last word of a day of remarkable tension goes to Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI), who spoke for millions of sentient Americans. “You are no different than Rudy Giuliani or Kellyanne Conway or any of the other people who sacrificed decent reputations for the grifter and liar who sits in the Oval Office,” she told Barr.
Again, he had no answer.