As Bette Davis once said, fasten your seatbelts — it’s going to be a bumpy ride. William Barr goes before the Senate Judiciary Committee today, beginning at 10 am ET or thereabouts. This will offer Congress its first specific chance for Congress to question the Attorney General on his handling of the Robert Mueller report. The second chance — a House Judiciary meeting scheduled for tomorrow — is still not confirmed over issues of format.
Put aside Mueller’s complaints about Barr’s letter characterizing the report, Pete Williams advised on NBC’s Today earlier. The panel will almost certainly focus more on why Barr concluded that no criminal act of obstruction of justice could be gleaned from the report. That question will be complicated by Mueller’s apparent refusal to decide that for himself:
“I would think that many of today’s questions will be about why Barr concluded the President did not obstruct justice – a call that Mueller's report, of course, decline to make.” @petewilliamsnbc talks Barr’s upcoming testimony pic.twitter.com/v0cSxffYbq
— TODAY (@TODAYshow) May 1, 2019
Don’t expect Barr to change his mind, either. Barr will inform Congress that the Department of Justice’s interest in all issues relating to Mueller’s investigation — with the exception of prosecuting those indicted by Mueller — has come to an end. From here on out, the matter is political rather than legal:
“The responsibility of the Department of Justice, when it comes to law enforcement, is to determine whether crimes have been committed and to prosecute those crimes under the principles of federal prosecution,” Barr will tell lawmakers Wednesday, according to prepared remarks. “With the completion of the Special Counsel’s investigation and the resulting prosecutorial decisions, the department’s work on this matter is at an end.” …
“From here on, the exercise of responding and reacting to the report is a matter for the American people and the political process,” Barr said in his prepared remarks. “As I’m sure you agree, it is vitally important for the Department of Justice to stand apart from the political process and not be become an adjunct of it.”
Barr will say the Justice Department plans to continue prosecutions that are already underway now and will have a separate investigation into the FBI’s conduct during the Russia investigation, and ultimately issue a report on bureau’s use of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
“Once a prosecutor has exhausted his investigation into the facts of a case, he or she faces a binary choice: either to commence or to decline procession,” Barr will say. “The appointment of a Special Counsel and the investigation of the conduct of the President of the United States do not change these rules.”
In his opening statement, Barr also plans to argue that he was as transparent as possible when it comes to the Mueller report. Barr will emphasize that only eight percent of the report was redacted from the public, and a private version for Congressional leadership only had two percent redacted. Furthermore, the redactions were done in cooperation with Mueller’s team:
We made every effort to ensure that the redactions were as limited as possible. According to one analysis, just eight percent of the public report was redacted. And my understanding is that less than two percent has been withheld in the minimally redacted version made available to Congressional leaders. While the Deputy Attorney General and I selected the categories of redactions, the redactions themselves were made by Department of Justice attorneys working closely with attorneys from the Special Counsel’s Office. These lawyers consulted with the prosecutors handling ongoing matters and with members of the intelligence community who reviewed selected portions of the report to advise on redactions. The Deputy Attorney General and I did not overrule any of the redaction decisions, nor did we request that any additional material
What about Barr’s letter to Congress? Someone conveniently leaked out Mueller’s unhappiness about it last night before Barr’s appearance, and no doubt Barr will get a ton of questions about it. Barr attempts to head off this debate in his statement, too:
After the Special Counsel submitted the confidential report on March 22, I determined that it was in the public interest for the Department to announce the investigation’s bottom-line conclusions—that is, the determination whether a provable crime has been committed or not. I did so in my March 24 letter. I did not believe that it was in the public interest to release additional portions of the report in piecemeal fashion, leading to public debate over incomplete information. My main focus was the prompt release of a public version of the report so that Congress and the American people could read it for themselves and draw their own conclusions.
Most of this has already been argued in both directions. This won’t stop Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee from arguing that Barr misled them, especially with Mueller’s objections now a part of the semi-public record. Republicans will argue that Mueller’s objections didn’t include allegations of being misleading or inaccurate, but only that the media would get it wrong and skew the debate. Besides, as Pete Williams says above, we already have the report. Barr’s letter was one moment in time; with the full report in hand, people can draw their conclusions directly.
Needless to say, it’s not going to be a fun day for William Barr on Capitol Hill. It might be a bit easier than tomorrow will be if the House Judiciary Committee comes to terms with Barr on the format, but the difference will be incremental at best. PBS will stream it live on their YouTube channel, so join the live audience if you miss the days when we fed captives to the lions. At least this one can bite back if he so chooses.