Update 7:15 p.m.: What we learned from Barr’s testimony
Attorney General William Barr has faced congressional grilling before, but his testimony before lawmakers this week is likely the most important of his career, and may be critical to the future of the president who appointed him.
This is the first time Barr will testify before Congress since he released a redacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, which detailed Russian attempts to influence the 2016 election and attempts by President Donald Trump to block or limit the investigation, though Mueller did not reach a conclusion on whether the president obstructed the probe. It is also Barr’s first appearance as attorney general before a judiciary committee, which has direct oversight over the Department of Justice. (His previous testimony as attorney general this year was to appropriations committees.)
The hearings this week come amid reports that Mueller raised significant concerns about how Barr had summarized the conclusions from his investigation.
It is not yet clear if Barr will testify before the House Judiciary Committee as scheduled Thursday; Democrats say he objects to that committee’s plan for staff attorneys to question him.
But Barr’s appearance Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee is compelling on its own. Here are five things to watch.
- Taking an oath. Barr may not be asked to take an oath before he testifies. Senate Judiciary Committee rules do not require it, and the choice to swear in witnesses is traditionally left to the committee chairman, currently Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. As attorney general, Barr has sworn to uphold the Constitution and bear “true faith” to that duty. But if he takes no specific oath to “tell the truth, the whole truth” to Congress, many believe he cannot face any perjury charges later. Barr theoretically could be prosecuted for a lesser charge, some form of “making false statements.” Setting the legal implications aside, if Barr is not sworn in, it could be meant as a statement from Graham supporting him as a witness whose word he trusts. We’ll know early on: oaths are usually given immediately after opening statements.
- The letters. Much of the hearing may revolve around two letters: Barr’s March 24th letter to Congress summarizing the conclusions of the Mueller report, and Mueller’s reported letter a few days later to Barr challenging the attorney general’s summary — and, according to the Washington Post, complaining that it did not fully capture the “context, nature and substance” of the report. The question is: Was Barr trying to manipulate the report in his summary in order to help the president? Here, listen closely to how Barr describes his interactions with Mueller and whether Democrats, especially Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., accuse Barr of lying to them in previous testimony.
- Barr’s decision on obstruction. A theme to watch from both sides will be questions surrounding why Barr decided there was not enough evidence in the Mueller report that Trump obstructed justice. Expect Republicans to rally to Barr’s defense and ask him extensive questions about the legal definition of obstruction, and specifically the role a person’s intent plays in establishing that obstruction took place. The attorney general has indicated that he did not think Mueller’s report contained enough evidence that the president intended to obstruct Mueller’s investigation. Democrats likely will fire back with their own look at the broader definition of obstruction, which is “interference with the orderly administration of law and justice.” Watch which examples Democrats raise from the Mueller report to see where they think the president most clearly crossed a line.
- How far will Democrats go? Until now, most Senate Democrats have been reluctant to publicly draw conclusions from the Mueller report. But in this hearing, will more Senate Democrats weigh in on whether the president should be impeached? Another open question: Will any Democrats tell Barr directly that he should resign? Adding to the drama, the panel has three current presidential candidates: Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Kamala Harris, D-Calif.
- Russia, spying and investigations. As attorney general, Barr oversees a host of investigations. Senators may repeatedly ask how much his Justice Department is doing to prevent Russia from interfering in the 2020 presidential election. Republicans may ask Barr to untangle another question: what he meant when he told another committee that “spying did occur” by the U.S. on individuals in the Trump campaign. Conservatives have long claimed that American law enforcement targeted some staffers in the Trump campaign, and have been waiting fo the chance to hear from Barr on the topic.