Barr's Senate testimony showcases his fundamental lies about the Mueller report

Barr's Senate testimony showcases his fundamental lies about the Mueller report
William Barr image via PBS NewsHour

On Wednesday, one low Barr met another when Donald Trump’s attorney general appeared before a Republican-led committee where Lindsey Graham was ready to swoop down on anyone who got uppity. But there will be no live-blogging of William Barr’s scheduled appearance before the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday—because Barr is a no-show. Democrats on the House committee wanted Barr to sit for a half-hour of discussion with the committee’s staff attorneys, both Democrat and Republican. That would allow Barr to be questioned without the constant five-minute back-and-forths between between the members of the committee. Barr … didn’t want to do that. So he’s not coming.


The standoff in the House will almost certainly result in a subpoena vote today. Barr will ignore the subpoena. The House will then likely find Barr in contempt. However, that contempt citation will go to a U.S. attorney who will almost certainly, at Barr’s order, fail to take that contempt before a grand jury. Then the House can launch a civil contempt lawsuit … which the DOJ will fight. All of which suggests that, unless some unlikely event occurs and Barr agrees to appear, the Wednesday appearance will have been the only time William Barr will appear in public to take questions about the Mueller report.

What did the American public learn from Barr’s appearance? That was simple enough: Trump can get away with anything. While Republicans, almost, but not quite unbelievably demanded further investigation on the critical issue of Hillary Clinton’s email, Democrats tried to get Barr to discuss how he could have, overnight, made the decision that Trump wasn’t guilty of obstruction, why his “summary” was so absolutely one-sided, why he failed to put out the summaries provided by Robert Mueller, and why he lied to the House Oversight Committee about his communications with Mueller.

On the most basic level, Barr’s story falls apart on step No. 1. Barr has insisted, and continues to insist, that he had no choice but to create his own “not a summary” to send to Congress because the executive summaries provided by Mueller might contain “6E” material—that is, material that included protected testimony before the grand jury. However, as the actual redacted report shows, they did not. This is an issue that could have been solved with two minutes’ conversation with the special counsel. But, Barr claims, he did not consult the special counsel before creating his three-page no collusion-no obstruction letter.

Because Barr’s intention was never to present the public with the actual conclusions of the report. It was to provide Trump with the “total exoneration” he demanded.

To see how badly Barr altered the results of Mueller’s findings only requires looking at a single sentence. Twice.

Barr actually broke sentences into fragments and picked out the words that he liked, expressly so that he could give Donald Trump a pass and give Republicans a three-week head start to create a “nothing to see here” narrative before more of the report slipped out.

But there’s an even bigger issue with Barr’s basic framing of his summary and his subsequent statements than just butchering the summaries and slicing through the words to find a Trump-friendly version. On Wednesday, Barr also continued to press the idea that Mueller had “left it to him” to determine whether Trump had committed obstruction. According to Barr, he was “puzzled” and “confused” and repeatedly “surprised” by Mueller’s decision that he wouldn’t decide on indicting Trump on obstruction. So Barr and Rosenstein decided for him.

Under a withering rapid-fire cross-exam from Sen. Kamala Harris, Barr admitted that he made this decision without even looking at the evidence. Then, in a stumbling attempt to defend the idea that he had made a decision in the most consequential case to ever pass before his eyes just by reading the summary, Barr pointed at Rosenstein, saying that he had been in touch with the special counsel and was getting regular updates.

Which means that, while Rosenstein was begging Trump to leave him in position and promising to “land this plane” for Trump, he was already getting evidence from Mueller on the state of the case. That certainly leaves a big, yawping question about what Rosenstein told Trump, and whether he was ready to go with a no-obstruction decision even before he received the report.

In any case, Barr, who spent much of the hearing insisting that as attorney general he had absolute power and that underlings like U.S. attorneys and special counsels had no say in his decisions, testified that he made the ruling on obstruction entirely on the word of underlings, without bothering to examine the evidence. But then, Barr didn’t need the evidence. Like Rosenstein, his decision was made even before he saw the report.

But the bigger issue on obstruction, and the reason that Barr continues to confess all that wide-eyed confusion, is that Mueller never, ever reached a point where he couldn’t say that Trump was guilty. What he reached was a point where he didn’t believe that anyone, anyone in the Justice Department could take the action required. Mueller didn’t say he couldn’t determine Trump’s guilt. This is what he said:

Because we determined not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgment, we did not draw ultimate conclusions about the President's conduct. The evidence we obtained about the President's actions and intent presents difficult issues that would need to be resolved if we were making a traditional prosecutorial judgment. At the same time, if we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, we are unable to reach that judgment. Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.

What Mueller determined was that there was substantial evidence of Trump’s guilt. He could not find Trump innocent. But, because of the special counsel’s position within the Justice Department, he could not indict.

Barr is continuing to present this as a decision that had to come down as a yes or no, as a “prosecutorial decision,” even though Mueller explicitly says that he cannot make that decision. Barr isn’t just misrepresenting the results of the investigation; he’s misrepresenting the basic nature of the report. And that’s the complaint that Robert Mueller made to Barr in the letter that he sent the attorney general after the release of the three-page summary/not-a-summary.

For the narrative Barr created in coordination with Trump and congressional Republicans to work, they have to sell two fundamental ideas about the investigation:

  • Barr could not have used the summaries that Mueller provided and had to write his own.
  • Barr had to reach a decision on obstruction, because that’s “what prosecutors do.”

But both of these are fundamental lies, unable to withstand even cursory examination. Barr could have used the summaries Mueller provided. His supposed concerns could have been solved with a phone call, and their release would have taken much less time than writing up his butchering of the report.

And the question of obstruction isn’t a question of finding Trump guilty or innocent. Mueller makes it clear that the evidence of Trump’s guilt is clear and abundant. The only question that Mueller presents is only about who can find Trump guilty.

That certainly isn’t William Barr.

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