On Wednesday, Attorney General William Barr made his first appearance on Capitol Hill since the release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report into Russian interference in the 2016 election. And it took place only hours after the revelation that Mueller had sent Barr a letter that expressed his displeasure with the attorney general’s initial four-page summary of the investigation’s findings, which quoted Mueller’s report selectively and implied that Mueller hadn’t found sufficient evidence that Trump had illegally obstructed justice. In his report, by contrast, Mueller said he hadn’t evaluated whether Trump had criminally obstructed justice because of a Justice Department policy against indicting the president — but explicitly said he could not exonerate Trump.
Barr spent much of his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee justifying his decision to release the summary. But he also continued to staunchly defend the president, telling senators that he did not believe Trump criminally obstructed justice and even suggesting that Mueller shouldn’t have been investigating possible obstruction of justice if he felt the president couldn’t ultimately be charged. During the hearing, two distinct tracks emerged, giving us a preview of what to expect from both parties as the debate over the Mueller report unfolds: Democrats’ line of inquiry set the stage for a continued focus on whether Trump and his administration improperly intervened in an investigation that was supposed to be independent. The Republicans, meanwhile, doubled down on questions about whether the investigation was fair to begin with.
In their questioning, the Democrats accused Barr of “purposely misleading” Congress and the broader public about Mueller’s findings. They also criticized him both for his rollout of the report and his conclusion that the evidence against Mueller didn’t warrant obstruction of justice charges. Sen. Chris Coons, for example, suggested that Barr’s primary motivation was to protect Trump by allowing him to say he had been exonerated when in reality, Mueller’s findings on the question of whether Trump had obstructed justice were much less clear. Early in the hearing, Sen. Patrick Leahy asked Barr why he had previously testified before Congress that he didn’t know about the Mueller team’s concerns about his summary of the report. Later, Sen. Mazie Hirono told Barr that he should resign (a call that was echoed by multiple Democrats outside the hearing, including several 2020 candidates) and accused him of lying in his previous congressional testimony and siding with Trump “over the interests of the American people.”
Meanwhile, Republicans’ questions focused very little on Trump or Mueller — instead, they largely ran with the president’s contention that the investigation was biased against him. In his opening statement, Sen. Lindsey Graham read a series of anti-Trump text messages from FBI agents who had helped investigate whether Trump’s 2016 campaign had coordinated with Russia. “We know that the person in charge of investigating hated Trump’s guts,” he said. Sen. Josh Hawley also focused on the text messages, suggesting that the investigation began with “unelected bureaucrats” trying to “overturn a democratic election.” Barr noted that there is an ongoing investigation by the Justice Department into whether anti-Trump bias affected the decision to launch a probe into possible ties between Russia and the Trump campaign and said that he might testify on these issues before Congress at a later date.
These two narratives seem likely to expand and repeat as the fallout from the Mueller report continues. House Democrats are beginning to follow up on leads from the investigation in their own inquiries. They have subpoenaed the underlying material from the report and testimony from former White House counsel Don McGahn, who emerged as the chief witness to Trump’s potentially obstructive behavior in the report. Trump, meanwhile, is fighting the Democrats’ investigative efforts, which itself could become fodder for their argument that Trump and his administration are blocking legitimate efforts to learn about potential presidential misconduct.
Republicans, on the other hand, are drawing on an argument that has been floated for some time among the president’s defenders — that the Russia investigation was unfairly biased against him from the beginning and started by politically motivated officials within the law enforcement community. This call to “investigate the investigators” could have political benefits if it reinforces the idea that the Mueller probe was rigged against Trump. And it could also shift the focus away from Barr’s role in the report’s release — and Trump’s own conduct as described in the report.
It’s too early, of course, to know how successful these strategies will be. According to a Washington Post/ABC News poll conducted in the aftermath of the report’s release, 51 percent of Americans said Mueller’s report was fair and even-handed, which may mean that it will be hard to discredit it outside of Trump’s base. Democrats, however, face their own challenge in calls for impeachment, as that is popular among rank-and-file Democrats but not Americans as a whole. The battle lines have been drawn, however, and it’s worth keeping an eye on how both parties’ narratives evolve as the political debate over Mueller’s report continues to unfold.
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