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Barr’s congressional appearance suggests parties are on a ‘collision course’ over Mueller

Attorney General William Barr appeared on Capitol Hill Tuesday to discuss his agency budget. With prompting from House Democrats, he also talked about when Congress and the public will see the Mueller report and how much of it Barr will have redacted. Lisa Desjardins joins Judy Woodruff with that update, plus fallout from the departure of DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and immigration policy.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    On Capitol Hill today, Attorney General William Barr gave more specifics on when the public might see the Mueller report, but little information on what he will release.

    Lisa Desjardins was in the hearing room.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Barr was scheduled to talk about his agency budget, but Democrats had something to say first.

  • Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y.:

    Mr. Attorney General, we cannot hold this hearing without mentioning the elephant in the room.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Meaning, the fact that Barr, one of the few people to have read the completed Mueller report, is the person in charge of its release. He gave lawmakers more of an indication of when.

  • William Barr:

    Within a week, I will be in a position to release that report to the public. And then I will engage with the chairmen of both Judiciary Committees about that report, about any further requests that they have.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    But he stopped short of giving Democrats, like Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey, what they wanted.

  • Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y.:

    Will we have the full report?

  • William Barr:

    You mean the unredacted report?

  • Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y.:

    Mm-hmm.

  • William Barr:

    No.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Barr said he is working on redactions, based on what the law requires, and he doesn't believe Congress has a right to see redacted grand jury testimony.

  • William Barr:

    I don't intend at this stage to send the full unredacted report to the committee. I am relying on my own discretion to make as much public as I can.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Democrats repeatedly questioned where Barr's loyalties lie, if he's aiming to help the president. Lowey raised that it took the attorney general only two days to write a summary of the report's conclusions.

  • Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y.:

    All we have is your four-page summary, which seems to cherry-pick from the report to draw the most favorable conclusion possible for the president. And, in many ways, your letter raises more questions than it answers.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Barr said he was helped by Mueller giving advance notice of the report's direction. In his summary, Barr quoted Mueller as concluding that there was no evidence that the president's campaign coordinated with Russia, and on obstruction of justice, that Mueller could not conclude whether the president committed a crime.

    Barr told lawmakers the White House provided no input on his letter, though it did get a heads up.

  • William Barr:

    I think it may have been read to them. They didn't get to see the letter.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Republicans pushed back themselves, at Democrats, accusing them of having a political agenda.

    Robert Aderholt of Alabama:

  • Rep. Robert Aderholt, R- Ala.:

    Unfortunately, I see so many of the questions here this morning have gone toward — going toward a grassy knoll conspiracy theory regarding — with the Mueller report.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    In the end, subcommittee Chair Jose Serrano closed the hearing with a broad message to Barr.

  • Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y.:

    I hope that, if you take something from here today, since we took a lot from you in information, is to maybe look around and realize or pay more attention to the fact that we lean on you to come through for this country.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    After the hearing, the politics returned, with each party arguing their support or suspicion of Barr to cameras.

    But all acknowledged the real fight is still ahead, when he releases the Mueller report, and how much they see.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And Lisa joins me now.

    So, Lisa, we see this division in the committee, the disagreement. You have been talking to them, though, as well behind the scenes. They're anticipating the release in the next few days. What are they saying about what they're looking for, how they're going to handle it?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    And to some degree, this hearing today was just optics. We didn't really learn a lot, except that now we know the timeline is within the next week.

    But what's happening behind the scenes is, of course, Democrats have a big decision to make. Jerry Nadler, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, holds in his hand subpoenas. They could ask for, legally ask for this full report.

    My indications are from sources are that he's going to wait until whatever Mueller releases comes out and then decide what he does with those subpoenas. Where that takes us then, Judy, of course, is to a very tricky court battle.

    Democrats say that they would like to see this redacted information behind closed doors in what they call SCIFs. Those are classified areas where they can look at this kind of information.

    But the indication today from Barr was that he is not inclined to release this information at all. So I think we are on a collision course ultimately over that information. First, however, we're waiting to see what the public and the rest of us get to see in this report, which is coming up within days.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Within days. It sure does look like a collision, though, is what's ahead.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That's right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So another issue, these changes in leadership at the Department of Homeland Security.

    The secretary is now gone or leaving, on her way out, Kirstjen Nielsen. It's not necessarily getting positive reaction from all Republicans. And I want to ask you about that.

    There's speculation about others at the department. The U.S. citizenship and immigration services director, a man named Lee Cissna, what are you hearing from Republicans about all this?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    We saw some really remarkable reaction from some senior Republicans, who otherwise have tried to support the Trump administration.

    Let's look at this quote from Chuck Grassley, the senator from Iowa, who until recently was the chairman of the Judiciary Committee. He spoke in an interview, I believe to The Washington Post.

    He said: "The president has to have some stability. He's pulling the rug out from the very people that are trying to help him accomplish his goal."

    Chuck Grassley is talking not just about the change in Homeland Security, but all these other acting departments that I know you talked to Amna and to Yamiche about yesterday.

    And the one you mentioned right now, the USCIS, is important as well, because that's something that Republicans want to use, that's an office they want to use in the future for trying to deal with asylum policy.

    Grassley is not the only one. I also talked to Ron Johnson, the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, Republican, same thing, concerns.

    And one more really important name, chairman of Armed Services, James Inhofe, he told me this is a huge problem now because also open is, of course, the seat at the Pentagon. The defense secretary nominee is acting.

    Inhofe told me, because of this, he thinks that there will be news on that nomination this week. It puts pressure to put someone in the Pentagon, because there's no one at Homeland Security.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's a glaring situation to have this — these significant vacancies right now.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And just quickly as well, Lisa, you're learning about some early efforts on the part of members of Congress to deal with the situation at the border.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That's right.

    Ron Johnson, the Homeland Security chairman, told me he's working on legislation from a Republican point of view to try and change how the asylum system works. We will be covering that in future weeks.

    But, Judy, it's important to note this comes as we saw new numbers today about detentions at the border. Apprehensions last month, Judy, went up to 103,000 people. That is an all-time record for March. And I think that number is expected to continue to grow.

    Meanwhile, Judy, Congress is expected to take a two-week recess in the midst of all of this. So a solution doesn't seem like it's coming soon, I'm sorry to report.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we thank you for staying on top of it. And I know you are going to continue to.

    Lisa Desjardins, thank you.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    You're welcome.

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