Attorney General William Barr showed up Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee to testify about his decision to clear President Donald Trump of obstruction of justice in a four-page summary before publicly releasing special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Barr faced questioning from lawmakers, especially Democrats, who took issue with his handling of the Mueller report and accused him of spinning the special counsel investigation’s findings in Trump’s favor. The attorney general spent his testimony defending his actions and criticizing the media’s portrayal of the findings.
Here are eight key takeaways from the Senate hearing:
1. Democrats grilled Barr over Mueller’s letter.
During the hearing, committee members brought up a Washington Post report from Tuesday night saying Mueller spoke on the phone with the attorney general and sent a March 27 letter to the Justice Department taking issue with the way Barr had characterized his findings.
In his testimony, Barr repeatedly claimed Mueller was more concerned about media reports than Barr’s summary of the special counsel’s findings. He also called Mueller’s letter “snitty” and said it was probably written “by one of his staff people.”
“I called Bob and said, ‘You know, what’s the issue here?’ And I asked him if he was suggesting that the March 24 letter was inaccurate,” Barr testified, referring to his summary. “And he said no, but that the press reporting had been inaccurate, and that the press was reading too much into it.”
Mueller’s letter reportedly said that Barr’s summary “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance of this office’s work and conclusions” and does not specifically mention any concerns about the media.
2. The committee’s GOP members threw softball questions.
Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee chose lines of questioning that had very little to do with Barr’s behavior relating to the Mueller report.
Some GOP lawmakers also used their allotted time to criticize Democratic committee members for being too aggressive in their questioning. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) even went as far as to say Barr was receiving the “Kavanaugh treatment,” referring to Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who was confirmed after Democrats aggressively questioned him about the sexual assault allegations against him.
Committee Chairman Sen. Lindsey Graham, who said he had not read the full Mueller report, falsely claimed as the hearing started that Mueller found “no collusion” between the Trump campaign and the Russian government and that Mueller left it up to Barr to decide whether Trump obstructed justice.
Both of those claims are false, as the investigation was looking for evidence of “conspiracy” and not “collusion,” and Mueller did not say he was leaving the decision to Barr on obstruction.
Graham also spent time shifting the conversation to Trump’s former election opponent Hillary Clinton and reading text messages from former FBI agent Peter Strzok, who called Trump an “idiot.”
3. Mazie Hirono tells Barr: ‘You should resign.’
Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) spent her questioning time ripping into Barr for his partisan behavior, accusing him of a cover-up and telling him to his face that he should resign.
“Now the American people know that you are no different from Rudy Giuliani or Kellyanne Conway or any of the other people who sacrificed their once-decent reputation for the grifter and liar who sits in the Oval Office,” Hirono said.
4. Barr would not say if Trump had asked him to investigate political opponents.
In a fiery line of questioning she’s known for, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) asked Barr if Trump or anyone in the White House had ever suggested that he open an investigation into anyone. After fumbling his words, the attorney general said it depends on the word “suggest,” and then claimed he wasn’t sure if Trump sought retaliatory investigations.
The president previously pressured former Attorney General Jeff Sessions to investigate Hillary Clinton, and has also publicly requested several times that the Justice Department to investigate his political opponents for crimes including treason.
Harris also got Barr to admit that neither he nor anyone in his office had reviewed the underlying evidence Mueller compiled before coming to their own legal determination cleared Trump of obstruction allegations.
5. The attorney general said he will not recuse himself from any criminal investigations related to Mueller’s probe.
Barr sparred Wednesday with some committee Democrats who said he should recuse himself from the 14 criminal investigations stemming from the Russia probe.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal asked Barr if he had discussed with Trump or anyone at the White House the ongoing investigations that originated from Mueller’s probe. Barr said he does not “recall” if he had those discussions, but told Blumenthal that he will not recuse himself from those investigations.
6. Barr declined to say if Mueller’s team had reviewed Trump’s finances.
Under questioning from Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), the attorney general would not say whether Mueller reviewed Trump’s taxes or investigated his finances.
“I don’t know. You can ask Bob Mueller when he comes here,” Barr said, referring to the fact that Senate Democrats are trying to get the special counsel to testify before the committee.
Barr also wouldn’t tell Klobuchar whether Trump’s actions detailed in the special counsel’s report are consistent with the president’s oath of office, in which he swore to faithfully execute the laws of the United States. The attorney general said the evidence is conflicting.
7. Barr danced around how foreign entities should be prohibited from involvement in U.S. elections.
Under questioning from Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), the attorney general could not clearly answer how foreign governments and organizations should be prohibited from getting involved in U.S. elections.
Sasse asked Barr to better explain how U.S. presidential campaigns should react to counterintelligence threats from foreign governments if an interference like 2016 happened again.
“I would like you to help us have an American public 101 understanding of what is and isn’t allowed. Is it permissible to be paid by someone who’s basically an enemy of the United States, and then could that individual just volunteer to donate their time and talent and expertise to a campaign in the U.S.?” Sasse said, referring to Paul Manafort’s Russian connections. “It that illegal?”
“That’s a very broad topic, what is legal and illegal,” Barr replied, adding, “It’s a slippery area.”
Sasse reminded Barr that he’s the chief law enforcement officer of the U.S. government.
8. Barr said Trump did not obstruct justice because he was “falsely accused.”
To explain his ruling that Trump did not obstruct justice despite 10 different instances of possible obstruction that Mueller’s team cited, Barr said it would it would not be a corrupt motive for the president to fire the special counsel if he was being falsely accused of colluding with the Russian government.
“If the president is being falsely accused – which the evidence now suggests that the accusations against him were false … that is not a corrupt motive for replacing an independent counsel.”
If the president feels a proceeding is unfounded, “the president does not have to sit there constitutionally and allow it to run its course,” Barr said. “The president could terminate the proceeding and it would not be a corrupt intent because he was being falsely accused.”
The special counsel’s report cited an instance of Trump telling former White House counsel Donald McGahn to get Mueller fired but said that McGahn refused to do so.