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Mueller Report Takes Front And Center At Attorney General Barr's Hearing


Attorney General William Barr released his now-famous four-page summary of the Mueller report on March 24. It appeared to draw conclusions about the nature of the investigation itself.


We now know that this concerned the special counsel, Robert Mueller. He sent a letter to the attorney general saying that Barr's summary did not fully capture the, quote, "context, nature and substance of his work."

CHANG: Attorney General Barr took questions from lawmakers today, and that letter of concern took center stage.


RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: This letter was an extraordinary act - a career prosecutor rebuking the attorney general of the United States, memorializing it in writing.

CHANG: That's Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat.

CORNISH: NPR's national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson watched the hearing today. Hey there, Carrie.


CORNISH: And Scott Detrow - he covers Congress. You're also in the studio. Welcome back.


CORNISH: Carrie, I want to start with you and with Barr's explanation for why this letter was not considered a rebuke.


WILLIAM BARR: I talked directly to Bob Mueller about his letter to me and specifically asked him, what exactly are your concerns? Are you saying that the March 24 letter was misleading or an accurate or what? He indicated that it was not.

CORNISH: Help us understand what's going on here.

JOHNSON: Yeah, Bill Barr told senators basically he got this letter from Bob Mueller and called up Mueller, who had been a good friend of his in the past, saying, what's with this letter? Why didn't you just call me and we could air it out that way? Bill Barr also said he had witnesses in the room when he made this call to the special counsel. Barr also told senators the tone of this letter from Mueller was snitty, and it was probably written by a member of the Mueller team, not Mueller himself. This letter complained about the process. Barr says no harm, no foul. The bulk of this report is now out. Everyone can read it for themselves.

CHANG: Now, according to the Mueller report, White House lawyer Don McGahn testified that the president directed him to have the special counsel removed. Here's Senator Dianne Feinstein of California.


DIANNE FEINSTEIN: The special counsel in his report found substantial evidence that the president tried to change McGahn's account in order to prevent - and this is a quote - "further scrutiny of the president toward the investigation," end quote. The special counsel also found McGahn is a credible witness with no motive to lie or exaggerate. So what I'm asking you, then - is that a credible charge under the obstruction statute?

BARR: We felt that that episode - the government would not be able to establish obstruction.

CHANG: Now, Carrie, the question of obstruction of justice and whether or not the president should or could be charged with that crime was asked again and again by Democratic lawmakers. How did Barr handle that question?

JOHNSON: You know, Bill Barr in some ways faulted the special counsel for not making a call one way or the other. He sort of threw the Mueller team under the bus. He also repeatedly said that the president did not have corrupt intent to the standard that would be necessary to charge this crime and succeed in court. Bill Barr also said in his view, there was no underlying crime here by the president, no conspiracy with Russians. But several Democrats on the committee pointed out there are other motives, other possible corrupt motives for obstructing justice like, say, covering up hush money payments...

CHANG: Right.

JOHNSON: ...To women who claimed they had affairs with Trump. Trump of course has been named in that case in New York as Individual 1.

CORNISH: Let's talk a little bit about how Republicans fared in this hearing. Here's Senator Mike Lee of Utah. He had a different topic he wanted to talk about.


MIKE LEE: Was any other Trump campaign official under surveillance during that time period to your knowledge?

BARR: Well, these are the things that I need to look at. And I have to say that as I've said before, you know, the extent that there was any overreach, I believe it was some - a few people in the upper echelons of the bureau and perhaps the department. But those people are no longer there.

CORNISH: Carrie, help us understand the focus here.

JOHNSON: Republicans almost since the start of this special counsel investigation have been calling for an investigation of the investigators, the origins of the wiretap on a Trump campaign adviser, Carter Page. And the wiretap, remember, was reauthorized multiple times both by Obama administration officials and also Trump administration officials. But there's concern that some of those people may have been politically motivated. There's not a lot of evidence of that, but we heard again and again today from Republicans in this hearing about the text messages exchanged between two FBI officials at the end of the Obama administration, Pete Strzok and Lisa Page, that seemed to have some kind of partisan motivations or messaging.

CHANG: All right, let's bring in Scott Detrow now. You've also been listening in on this hearing. Like other congressional hearings, you know, we saw two parallel narratives going on today. What did you hear from the Republican side of the room?

DETROW: Yeah, in addition to what Carrie was talking about - questions about how this Trump investigation got started - we heard a lot from Republicans about a familiar 2016 topic, and that is Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server at the State Department and the FBI investigation into that. Essentially a lot of the things that Republicans on the committee were talking about today are the things that President Trump has repeatedly brought up over the past few years as he's defended himself against the Mueller investigation. Republicans also defended Barr a lot as Democrats kept criticizing his actions. At one point, Texas Senator Ted Cruz mocked the idea that Barr's initial four-page summary to Congress was the end and the final word on all this.


TED CRUZ: We have investigated over and over and over again, and the substance of the accusations that have been leveled at the president for 2 1/2 years have magically disappeared. Instead the complaint is the 19 pages that we can all read that is entirely public could have been released a few weeks earlier - oh, the calamity.

CORNISH: You know, guys, the person whose name we heard the most was not there - right? - special counsel Robert Mueller.


MAZIE HIRONO: Mr. Mueller wrote you a letter objecting...


UNIDENTIFIED SENATOR #1: Mr. Mueller assembled what would be called...


UNIDENTIFIED SENATOR #2: Special counsel Mueller is responsible...


DICK DURBIN: What about Bob Mueller? Should he be allowed to testify?

CORNISH: That last voice was Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois. Carrie, do you think we'll be hearing from Robert Mueller?

JOHNSON: Well, if Lindsey Graham, the chairman of this committee, a Republican from South Carolina, has his way, the answer is likely no. Lindsey Graham told reporters after the hearing ended that in his view, this is it. He's going to send a letter to Bob Mueller asking him if Mueller's recollections of this phone call in contention with the attorney general, Bill Barr, differ significantly from what Barr testified to today. If there is no significant difference, Lindsey Graham basically wants to move along. Now, of course in the House, Jerry Nadler, Democrat, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, does want to hear from Bob Mueller in May. There's no date set for that yet.

CHANG: All right, let's move to election politics now. This hearing obviously comes as the country is gearing up for a presidential election, a point that was acknowledged by the attorney general himself this afternoon.


BARR: Everyone can decide for themselves. There's an election in 18 months. That's a very democratic process. But we're out of it. We have to stop using the criminal justice process as a political weapon.

CHANG: Now, there are three presidential candidates on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and they each took their turn questioning the attorney general.


AMY KLOBUCHAR: The report found that after Manafort was convicted, the president himself called him a brave man for refusing to break.


CORY BOOKER: And I fear that we're descending into a new normal that is dangerous for our democracy on...


KAMALA HARRIS: Has the president or anyone at the White House ever asked or suggested that you open an investigation of anyone - yes or no, please, sir.

BARR: They have not asked me to open an investigation, but...

HARRIS: Perhaps they've suggested.

BARR: I don't know. I wouldn't say suggest.

HARRIS: Hinted?

BARR: I don't know.

HARRIS: Inferred?

CHANG: All right, in reverse order, those were the voices of senators Kamala Harris of California, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. Scott, this was obviously a national moment on cable television today. What was your sense about how these three candidates handled the moment?

DETROW: Yeah, they were all clearly trying to take advantage of that moment, all pretty skeptical of how Barr handled this and the conclusion that he reached. You heard Klobuchar argue repeatedly that if you look at the broad pattern of what President Trump did over the last few years, there's a case to be made for obstruction of justice.

Booker raised a lot of big-picture concerns about lying, deception in the White House. And he was saying that Barr gave cover to the president and the Trump campaign not just in those legal conclusions but also the things he said in that initial press conference. Kamala Harris, rather, did what she does very well and asked a lot of tough, direct questions, as we heard. And speaking about trying to take advantage of the moment, her presidential campaign was sending out fundraising emails about that back-and-forth with Barr, you know, moments after the back-and-forth ended during the hearing.

CORNISH: And then, Scott, the political question - you mentioned Senator Harris as candidate Harris (laughter) fundraising off of this. Can you talk about how Democrats plan to keep this issue alive, so to speak?

DETROW: Sure. Broadly, they're certainly going to keep investigating Trump and the White House. On the House side, they're going to keep pushing for Robert Mueller to testify. But if you get to the logical conclusion of this, whether or not they'll support impeachment or start pushing for it, it's a tricky line. Just look at a new poll from NPR, "PBS NewsHour" and Marist which shows that 7 in 10 Democrats want that process to begin, but less than 40 percent of voters as a whole are interested in that.

If you look at the candidates, they're walking a line where Amy Klobuchar is saying, as she told Morning Edition this morning, she thinks there's an - there's a case to be made for obstruction of justice, but when you say, would you support impeachment, she says, we need to gather more facts first. She's not quite ready to take that next step as Senator Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris have.

CHANG: And Carrie, there was kind of a dramatic end to the day today. House Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler made this announcement.


JERRY NADLER: Attorney General Barr has just informed us that he will not attend tomorrow's hearing. Given his lack of candor in describing the work of the special counsel, our members were right to insist that staff council be permitted to question the attorney general. The Department of Justice has also told us that they will not comply with our subpoena for the full, unredacted Mueller report.

CHANG: So what just went down?

JOHNSON: So basically Jerry Nadler, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said that Bill Barr is flouting (laughter) congressional demands and that he's going to give Barr a little more time to comply. But if not, they are ready to go issue a contempt citation against the attorney general of the United States.

CHANG: What are the consequences of that?

JOHNSON: Well, right now the Justice Department says that Barr has already testified today, of course, for five hours, and they've made accommodations to lawmakers, basically making available in a special setting the whole, unredacted or mostly unredacted Mueller report. They haven't drawn a line about cooperation with Congress, and, you know, that's happened before. It happened to Attorney General Eric Holder in the Obama administration. He was censured by Congress, and then nothing happened after that.

CHANG: Well, that's NPR's nation justice correspondent Carrie Johnson and NPR's Scott Detrow, who covers Congress. Thanks to both of you.

DETROW: Thank you.

JOHNSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is NPR's National Justice Correspondent.