Full Episode: Attorney General William Barr under fire, tensions escalate between Congress and the White House

May. 03, 2019 AT 10:07 p.m. EDT

As tensions between the Trump administration and Capitol Hill continue to escalate over special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, the panelists recapped Attorney General Bill Barr’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee this week.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

ROBERT COSTA: The attorney general doesn’t back down, and neither does Congress. I’m Robert Costa. Welcome to Washington Week .

The attorney general under fire over his handling of the Mueller report.

ATTORNEY GENERAL WILLIAM BARR: (From video.) It was my decision how and when to make it public, not Bob Mueller’s.

MR. COSTA: Democrats want the special counsel to testify. Republicans say enough is enough.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): (From video.) It’s over. If there is any dispute about a conversation then he’ll come, but I’m not going to retry the case.

MR. COSTA: House Democrats are furious.

HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) The attorney general of the United States of America was not telling the truth to the Congress of the United States, that’s a crime.

MR. COSTA: The subpoenas fly, and the battle between Congress and the White House escalates, next.

ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week . Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.

MR. COSTA: This week Robert Mueller answered a key question: Did he, the special counsel, have concerns with the attorney general’s summary of his report? The answer: He did. In late March Barr cleared President Trump of breaking the law in a four-page memo. Days later Mueller wrote to Barr. He said Barr’s limited summary had caused, quote, “public confusion” about critical aspects of the report and “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance” of the special counsel’s work. Barr defended himself in Senate testimony this week, noting that he later released a redacted version of the report.

ATTORNEY GENERAL WILLIAM BARR: (From video.) We prepared the letter for that purpose, to state the bottom-line conclusions. We were not trying to summarize the 410-page report.

MR. COSTA: Joining me tonight, Dan Balz, chief correspondent for The Washington Post ; Laura Jarrett, correspondent for CNN; Carrie Johnson, national justice correspondent for NPR; and Ed O’Keefe, political correspondent for CBS News.

Laura, as someone on the DOJ beat day in, day out, when you look at this letter from Robert Mueller, what’s its legal significance?

LAURA JARRETT: So I actually don’t think it’s possible to overstate how extraordinary of a moment this is to have the special counsel making a written record of his concerns. And it’s not just the language he uses, which is scathing, I think in my view, especially from someone like Robert Mueller who everyone thinks of as so by the book – we haven’t heard a peep out of him for over the two-year investigation that he’s gone through – and his one time to speak is to go to paper against his old friend Bill Barr, somebody he’s worked with 30 years ago, he knows really well. He could have picked up the phone, and instead he decided to make a written record for the American people.

MR. COSTA: Why does it matter, Laura, for him to go to paper, as you say?

MS. JARRETT: I think is shows how alarmed he was. I think it – I think it demonstrates that it wasn’t something that he thought his concerns were getting through, because remember he had given the Justice Department redacted copies of his summaries and he thought if you put the summaries out the American people will have a better sense of what’s actually contained in this report, unlike what he thought was Bill Barr’s, you know, misleading letter. So he thought if you put those out you’ll get them – you’ll get a better sense of what the context is here. Obviously, that didn’t happen.

MR. COSTA: Dan, you’ve observed Robert Mueller for years. He is an institutionalist. He’s known for his integrity. How much power does his reputation carry?

DAN BALZ: An enormous amount. I mean, Laura’s absolutely right, I mean, this is an extraordinary thing that happened. There are very few people in Washington who come with the reputation of a Robert Mueller. He is, as everybody says – he is the ultimate professional public servant who has had a sterling reputation in everything he has done. And for him to go through this two-year process, to prepare the report, and then find himself upset about what the attorney general has done and, as Laura said, to put it in writing is an amazing act on his part. I mean, it is – it is an act of defiance by somebody who we never think of as somebody who would defy the authorities for whom he’s working.

MR. COSTA: An act of defiance, Carrie, but inside of the Department of Justice you have an attorney general who states that Robert Mueller was not questioning his conduct but was raising concerns about media confusion. What’s the view inside of DOJ about how this all played out?

CARRIE JOHNSON: Yeah, to hear Bill Barr tell it in testimony this week this was largely the media’s fault, not his own fault. And in part, Bob, it was Bob Mueller and Bob Mueller’s team’s fault. Senior DOJ leaders are still upset with Mueller for not making a call – a clear call one way or another about prosecuting President Trump for obstruction of justice. They’re upset that some of the legal reasoning in the report, in Barr’s view, was confusing. And Barr also called this letter from Bob Mueller a little bit snitty and said that probably one of Mueller’s angry prosecutors wrote it, not Bob Mueller himself. So there was an element in which Bill Barr kind of threw under the bus his old friend Bob Mueller and members of that team this week.

MR. COSTA: And we expect to hear from Mr. Mueller soon. Senator Lindsey Graham sent a letter on Friday inviting him to testify about, quote, “any misrepresentation” of a call he had with the attorney general. Ed, when Mueller comes before the Senate Judiciary Committee, what should we expect, and why did Senator Graham do this?

ED O’KEEFE: Well, it’s when Mueller comes to Congress; whether he ultimately comes to both sides of the Congress I think is still up for debate, but he’s certainly interested in coming and it will happen, and I keep thinking it’ll be the drama of the Comey hearing when he came to explain himself plus the drama and the tension of the Kavanaugh confirmation hearing last year plus the sort of general mystery of, oh, that’s what he sounds like, because we actually haven’t heard from this guy at all over the course of this process.

MR. COSTA: But you mention, Ed, that it’s up for debate. What’s the debate on Capitol Hill?

MR. O’KEEFE: Well, because this Graham letter suggests you can come to talk about this one specific thing. It’ll be question – there will questions of can he come and talk about everything else or are you going to try to limit the scope of his testimony. The House Judiciary Committee certainly wants to hear from him and get him to talk about everything, and there are reports this week that that’s in the works. And so I think it’s just a matter of when exactly he will be there, but it sounds like we’re getting closer to that. To me, this Graham letter in part reads as if they know he’s coming to the House side at least; they now want to be involved and help control his visit to the Capitol and make it clear that Republicans have something else they’d like to hear from him about.

MR. COSTA: It was a high-stakes showdown when the attorney general came to Capitol Hill to talk to the U.S. Senate this week. Democrats accused Barr of lying during two prior appearances before Congress when he said he was not aware that Mueller’s team had frustration. Carrie, did the attorney general answer those questions in a sufficient way in the eyes of the Democrats about whether he lied or not?

MS. JOHNSON: Absolutely not. Speaker Nancy Pelosi this week accused the attorney general of the United States of lying, which she said was a crime. Now, to hear Bill Barr tell it, he was answering a question that was worded very specifically; he answered it very specifically. But Democrats, especially in the Senate, said that he was engaging in painful hairsplitting and legalistic parsing and not really telling the truth, the whole truth.

MR. COSTA: How vulnerable, Laura, is the attorney general on this lying charge? Is it more of a political fight, or inside of DOJ are they concerned he could face perjury charges?

MS. JARRETT: No, they’re not worried. (Laughs.) First of all, it’s a really high bar for perjury. You have to have specific knowledge that it was false. And not to hair-split, but the question from Representative Crist was about members of the special counsel’s team in light of the New York Times report that suggested they were sort of disgruntled. He didn’t say did Special Counsel Robert Mueller call you on X day and express concerns. If he had asked him a direct question like that and the attorney general said, well, no or I don’t know, I think he’d be on different ground here. That’s not to say that the attorney general should be misleading the American public. I mean, this is not, I think, the standard, necessarily, that one would want. Lack of candor is certainly an issue, even if perjury isn’t on the table.

MR. COSTA: That’s such a good point, Laura, because there was this legal dance throughout so much of the attorney general’s testimony and there were a number of heated and revealing exchanges, including this one between Barr and California Senator Kamala Harris, a presidential candidate who began her career as a prosecutor.

SENATOR KAMALA HARRIS (D-CA): (From video.) 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.

ATTORNEY GENERAL WILLIAM BARR: (From video.) The president or anybody else?

SEN. HARRIS: (From video.) Seems you’d remember something like that and be able to tell us?

ATTY GEN. BARR: (From video.) Yeah, but I’m trying to grapple with the word “suggest.” I mean, there have been discussions of matters out there that – they have not asked me to open an investigation, but –

SEN. HARRIS: (From video.) Perhaps they suggested?

ATTY GEN. BARR: (From video.) No, I would say suggest –

SEN. HARRIS: (From video.) Hinted?

ATTY GEN. BARR: (From video.) I don’t know.

SEN. HARRIS: (From video.) Inferred? You don’t know? OK.

MR. COSTA: Dan, careful and savvy or too cagey?

MR. BALZ: Well, it depends on which side of the aisle you sit. I mean, from the Democratic point of view, way too cagey. I mean, it goes back to the question of how he responded to the question when he was asked when he testified in the House about whether he knew anything about the concerns of the Mueller team. It was – it was an effort, at best, to deflect the question, if not to dodge the question. I think Republicans saw that moment as a member of the Senate badgering the attorney general. And they take a much different view of it. But there’s no doubt it was a question that he was uncomfortable with, as you could see in that clip.

MR. O’KEEFE: No less a member of the Senate running for president who was looking for a moment. (Laughter.) And I think she sent at least two fundraising emails within 12 hours of that exchange trying to pump it up amongst her supporters and see how much money she could raise off of it.

MS. JARRETT: But think about how – he’s answering the question like that, I think in part, because the president calls on the Justice Department to open investigations all of the time. And so I think part of what he’s wrestling with is, well, does a tweet count? I mean, what we really want to know is what has the president said to you behind closed doors in terms of calling on the Justice Department to open something.

But think about this whole issue of spying. The president has been saying the Justice Department should look into spying for weeks and months now. Well, it turns out the Justice Department is looking into that. But was it triggered by the president or was it Bill Barr’s own interest in it? So I think that’s part of the issue there.

MR. O’KEEFE: In other words, we may hear about this soon in some other –

MR. COSTA: Let’s pause here on the spying point, because the attorney general defended his use of the word “spying,” and The New York Times this week offered new details, Carrie, about this episode back in 2016, during the presidential campaign. You had an FBI person meet with George Papadopoulos under cover. And The New York Times put this on the front page. And it raises questions about the counterintelligence operation during the 2016 campaign. And this is part of what’s happening inside of the Department of Justice right now with the inspector general, who has a report that’s coming. What do we expect to learn about this so-called spying, or is it just normal surveillance, from the inspector general in the coming months?

MS. JOHNSON: Yeah, remember, Inspector General Michael Horowitz was asked to look into the FISA process for Carter Page, another Trump campaign advisor, how that came to pass. And remember also that Obama administration officials signed off on that FISA process, as did Trump administration officials. But the inspector general appears to have broadened his purview to also look at that dossier prepared by Christopher Steele, the former British intelligence officer, which contains some inaccurate details. There are some questions about whether he was fed disinformation by the Russians themselves. And he also now appears to be looking at strategies or tactics the FBI deployed against George Papadopoulos, the Trump campaign advisor, and other people in 2016.

Republicans welcome this effort. Bill Barr, the attorney general, says he’s very concerned about it. He’s launching his own review, which may expand beyond what the inspector general is doing. He gave some real credence this week, Bill Barr did, to these concerns. And President Trump was tweeting very favorably about The New York Times , which you do not see every day – (laughter) – after this story came out.

MR. COSTA: It’s not just about the tweets, Dan. You have the president using the word “coup” – “coup,” a government overthrow – with regard to this pending report on surveillance.

MR. BALZ: Well, I think we have to keep in mind that we’ve got two situations here. One, we’ve got this constitutional clash between the administration and the Congress over what information is going to be made available and what is going to happen beyond the investigation that Bob Mueller undertook. The second is the political battle. And the president has been, frankly, quite effective in the political battle – first in raising questions about the validity of the entire Mueller operation, and now pushing more and more in the direction of: We need to get to the bottom of how this whole thing happened because, in his mind, it was illegal, you know, every word he’s used. But that’s part of what he is going to feed that side of the political debate that’s undergoing.

MR. COSTA: That was the Russia side of what happened during Barr’s testimony. But what was also so notable was what happened on the obstruction side of the Mueller report. Many Democrats said this week that Barr was essentially acting as President Trump’s lawyer, especially when it came to obstruction.

ATTORNEY GENERAL WILLIAM BARR: (From video.) There is a distinction between saying to someone, go fire him – go fire Mueller, and saying, have him removed based on conflict. They have different results.

MR. COSTA: Ed, when you think about the case he’s making for executive power on obstruction, it comes back to that 19-page memo he wrote before he even became attorney general.

MR. O’KEEFE: It does. And it continues to feed Democratic suspicions that the reason he got this job in the first place is because someone showed the president that memo and the president realized, oh, this guy would be much better for me than Jeff Sessions. The fact that we now have almost dueling impeachment debates – do we impeach the attorney general or do we impeach the president or do we impeach them both – creates a bit of a pickle for Democrats, I think. Because when you look at polling – The Washington Post /ABC poll, once again, this week firmed up the belief of the majority of Americans that impeachment isn’t worth it. And yet, you look at the numbers among Democrats and they say it absolutely is. And the party’s going to have to grapple with that over the coming days.

Again, today, the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said: It’s not necessarily off the table, but she doesn’t see it as a top and immediate priority. Let’s see how these things go. If they want to redirect all their ire to the attorney general and blow off the president, well, some will be OK with that. Others will say, no, you’re taking your eye off the prize, which is either impeaching or defeating him at the ballot box – the president.

MR. COSTA: And part of the reason that matters, what he said about executive power and – is executive privilege. The White House is looking this week to prevent Don McGahn, the former White House counsel, from coming before Congress to talk about these episodes that were detailed in the Mueller report. Do we expect executive privilege to be asserted and for the attorney general to back it up?

MS. JARRETT: I think so. I think we’ve seen this letter now that’s been unearthed curiously this week from Emmett Flood, a top lawyer in the White House counsel’s office, to the attorney general the day after the report’s released, essentially excoriating Mueller for being too political, saying that it looks like part truth commission part law school exam. But he’s also making that point that just because we allowed McGahn, the former White House counsel, to come testify for 30 hours doesn’t mean that then he gets to testify in Congress. I think that’s a really hard argument to make, solely because we now have the report. It would be one thing if he had provided the testimony only behind closed doors. You could argue that was still within the executive branch. The fact that President Trump allowed all of that, didn’t do any sort of privilege review, all to come out in the open through the Mueller report, I think that’s been waived, effectively. I think that’s going to be really hard to make an argument for executive privilege over any of that material in court.

MS. JOHNSON: Yeah, but they’re going to fight anyway. It’s going to run out the clock on this presidency. And that seems to be the strategy that this administration is pursuing out of the White House and continuing through the Justice Department through –

MR. COSTA: You’re saying it ends up in federal court?

MS. JOHNSON: It may well. And I’ve covered a lot of these battles over the years, involving the Obama administration and the George W. Bush administration, with Fast and Furious, the firing of the U.S. attorneys. All of those things ended up in court. And they took years and years to resolve, if they’re resolved today.

MR. BALZ: The president drew a pretty hard line when he did the Fox interview earlier this week, and basically said: It’s done. I mean, he said: I allowed McGahn to testify. I let everybody testify. They have spoken. We don’t need any more. We’re done.

MR. O’KEEFE: Isn’t this also, though designed to keep Don McGahn and Robert Mueller and all the others off-camera, because the moment they step before cameras in the Congress it becomes a big TV moment that will be used against the president?

MS. JARRETT: Think about Michael Cohen. (Laughs.)

MR. O’KEEFE: Right. That’s what this is about.

MR. COSTA: And House Democrats, and Democrats in general, they’re going to have to face all of this, what happened this week. And the one we’re all watching as reporters, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, because she’s walking a political tightrope, balancing calls from her party’s base to impeach the attorney general and the president with her own political instincts. Dan, when you think about Speaker Pelosi, how does she navigate this?

MR. BALZ: Well, as deftly as she can in a changing environment. I mean, until the Mueller report came out, she seemed to have the high ground with her – you know, with her conference, which was to say: Let’s not go there unless there is bipartisan support. And then the Mueller report came out, and it ramped up the pressure in various places for at least looking toward the possibility of impeachment. She is maneuvering, you know, day-by-day, week-by-week on this, trying her best to stay within the realm of public opinion. But it’s not an easy situation now. And the more there is a clash over documents and everything else the more it is going to create ire among Democrats in the House and people on the outside, presidential candidates among them.

MR. COSTA: Ed, what about holding the attorney general in contempt? That’s a step before impeachment, but if he doesn’t comply with the subpoena from House Judiciary Committee is contempt the next move for Democrats?

MR. O’KEEFE: It is, and in some ways it’s an easier move because it doesn’t go after the president necessarily, and contempt of Congress by an attorney general is nothing new. Eric Holder had that issue with Fast and Furious, so we’ve been down that path recently and Eric Holder lived to fight another day. But I think – you referred this, Dan – the pressure – the increasing pressure from presidential candidates who will begin to occupy soapboxes over the summer I think could be a bit much for Pelosi and will continue to raise questions of, you know, they’re speaking to one element of the party, you’re clearly trying to do something else; does this have the potential to really divide them as this continues? And I think, you know, absent numbers that show declining support for this among Democrats, which after this week I don’t think necessarily will be there, it’s going to be even trickier for the speaker going forward.

MR. COSTA: What about Republicans?

MS. JARRETT: They don’t seem to have any appetite – (laughs) – to make any moves from this Mueller report. I mean, it’s – as damning as some of the facts were on the obstruction issue, the fact that Mueller didn’t actually reach a decision on that I think was sort of a gift to them, and the fact that he certainly didn’t say that there was an act of conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russian government – again, you know, just – all they could I think potentially ask for out of the Mueller report. And so what I think you have now is Democrats clamoring on things like the attorney general not showing up, these document production fights, so you see all of those extraneous things. But meanwhile, Lindsey Graham is saying he doesn’t even want to hear from Mueller, so –

MR. COSTA: That’s the immediate reaction from Republicans, they think the attorney general’s in the right and they like that the president’s fighting with Congress. But does it set a precedent, Carrie, for the future, for the next time there’s a Democratic president, about the power of Congress versus the power of the executive?

MS. JOHNSON: Well, to hear Democrats tell it in this Congress, if they let Bill Barr, the attorney general, get away with dictating terms of a hearing in their hearing room, they have given up the store. They maintain that they are a coequal branch of government and they cannot give ground to this executive branch and this attorney general, whose view of executive power is so sweeping. It could be that some of the arguments that this administration makes come back in the future and bite Republicans in the posterior. I’ve seen it happen in the national security space since 9/11. So one needs to be careful when you’re talking about who holds the gavel and who holds the White House.

MR. COSTA: Posterior, very PBS. (Laughter.) Thank you.

Dan, I always love when you’re on the ground talking to voters. You just came back from a trip to Iowa to follow Vice President Biden. When you’re in the crowd, Democratic voters, independent voters, some Republicans, are they talking about all of this?

MR. BALZ: No, they are – they are not. I mean, they are certainly aware of it. Some of them are following it. But what they are focused on right now is trying to get a sense of who these 21 candidates are who are seeking the Democratic nomination, soon to be 22 or 23. They are very interested in evaluating them apart from the issue of what they think about President Trump. They are determined to try to find a candidate who can win that presidential race in 2020. So the ins and outs of what’s going on – I mean, I was there the day the attorney general was testifying; I didn’t hear anybody talk about it, nobody raised it, and the former vice president didn’t bring it up.

MR. COSTA: Ed, you’ve been on the campaign trail as well covering things for CBS. When you talk to Democrats, they know the April jobs report exceeded expectations, you may have heard the same thing from voters that Dan’s been hearing from voters, yet the presidential field for the Democrats continues to call for impeachment at some level of President Trump and the attorney general.

MR. O’KEEFE: Some of them, yeah. And I think on the economy you’ve got the argument that, well, things are looking good on paper; not everyone is enjoying it at the same level, same intensity, and so that populist argument could actually prove to be quite true for – or quite popular for Democrats. I was with Biden on Monday when he had his first event in Pittsburgh and we talked to people in the crowd, and that was the day that the president had tweeted that labor – members of labor unions were more likely to support him than Joe Biden because a major firefighters union had endorsed Biden that day. And labor union members that were in the crowd laughed at me, saying, no, we don’t like him, he’s – we’re sick of it, we’re exhausted, we want to move back into some sense of normalcy and decency in Washington. And that is something I’ve heard at a few other events this year in Iowa and in other states, and just this sense of everything going on in Washington drives me nuts, I’m tired of – like, physically, mentally tired of it. And I think if there’s a way for Democrats to capture that and suggest that they would return things to a saner, more respectful time, it might resonate quite widely.

MR. COSTA: Quick read on Biden?

MR. BALZ: He’s, as I wrote, a work in progress. He had some good moments and some not-so-good moments.

MR. COSTA: You got to read Dan’s column to hear the rest. (Laughter.)

Thanks, everybody. Our conversation continues on the Washington Week Extra. We will discuss the latest shooting at a synagogue. You can watch it on our website, Facebook, or YouTube starting at 8:30 p.m. every Friday night and all week long.

I’m Robert Costa. Have a great weekend.


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