The goal: Suggest that the attorney general acted inappropriately and obscured the real conclusions of the the special counsel's report. But after hours of stagecraft and stump speeches in the form of questions from both sides of the aisle, two real questions remain: Is there any daylight between the attorney general and the special counsel? And is the basis for the hearing, as Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told reporters, now "over"?
Sen. Kamala D. Harris, D-Calif., offered a different view, tweeting, "What I just saw from the Attorney General is unacceptable. Barr must resign now."
Does anyone think her tweet wasn't written before the hearing even began?
Anyway, based on their interventions, the Democrats saw Wednesday's encounter with Barr as their chance to poke holes in the Justice Department's conclusions about the Mueller report. For his part, Barr kept his cool and tried to stay out of the political fray, mostly answering questions with a simple yes or no. When there was an actual legal question, he expanded on his reasoning. He was by far the most adult character in the room.
Make no mistake: What happened on Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee was not a hearing; it was two separate show trials in the same room.
The drama setting the stage for the hearing was the leak of Mueller's March 27 letter to Barr. That letter's most critical line suggested Barr's conclusions on the report "did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance of [the special counsel's] work and conclusions," and went on to urge that Barr release more information.
Well, two weeks later, Barr did just that by releasing the full report, minus redactions. No one could reasonably expect Barr's original four-page letter to capture the full essence of a two-year investigation that cost tens of millions of dollars and dominated news cycles since mid-2017.
Barr explained his understanding that Mueller was frustrated with how the media reacted to his March 24 letter to Congress, and he also referenced a phone conversation the two had after Barr received Mueller's March 27 letter. That, in a nutshell, is the answer to Wednesday morning's headlines. The rest was recycled Washington swamp talk of the kind that those who aren't political junkies have learned to tune out.
The three Democratic presidential candidates on the committee did their best not to appear wild-eyed, rehearsed or pandering --- but each fell short. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., began by saying she was "gonna take us out of the weeds," then proceeded to take us even further into the weeds after instructing Barr which legislation he should support (hers).
Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., said he wanted to "take a step back" - immediately after his colleague Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, viciously maligned Barr, calling him a liar and demanding that he step down - and made airy remarks about this "sobering moment in American history."
And predictably, Harris played prosecutor and spent her questioning trying to indict Barr as being somehow too conflicted to do his job. Meanwhile, almost all Republicans drew attention to the sketchy beginnings of the Russia investigation --- the discredited Steele dossier, a couple freelancing FBI agents and a relentless campaign to feed the media with innuendo and conspiracy theories.
Two currents of outrage filled the air in the hearing room: Democrats raged against the report's actual findings; Republicans lamented that, as Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, put it to reporters during the break, "everybody was sold a bunch of snake oil, and now, the jig is up."
But is the fake news about a fake feud between Mueller and Barr, as Graham would like, now "over?" The Democrats, echoing a Hillary Clinton op-ed in The Washington Post last week, cannot afford to let go. Clinton wrote, "Congress should hold substantive hearings that build on the Mueller report and fill in its gaps, not jump straight to an up-or-down vote on impeachment." Maybe that is why the Democrats now pin their 2020 hopes on this show going on and on.
As a 35-year political veteran, looking beyond the Democrats' spite and condemnation of Barr, I can smell fear. And the Democrats are afraid of Barr's independence, his experience and his willingness to pursue the obvious questions of the FBI and the Justice Department's leadership and the Obama administration's political posturing during the 2016 campaign. Barr has the confidence to almost taunt the Democrats.
The truth is out there, and Barr is threatening to reveal it.
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