AG William Barr defends handling of Russia report at Senate hearing

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WASHINGTON — Attorney General William Barr defended himself Wednesday against withering criticism of his handling of the special counsel investigation as Democrats accused him of deceiving Congress and acting as a personal agent for President Donald Trump rather than a steward of justice.

At a contentious hearing marked by a deep partisan divide, Barr denied misrepresenting the investigation’s conclusions despite a newly revealed letter by special counsel Robert Mueller protesting the initial summary of its findings. Barr dismissed the letter as “a bit snitty” and the controversy over it as “mind-bendingly bizarre.”

But in a series of aggressive interrogations, Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee expressed indignation and asserted that the attorney general had been “purposely misleading,” engaged in “masterful hairsplitting” and even “lied to Congress.” Several Democrats on the committee, elsewhere in Congress and on the presidential campaign trail called for Barr’s resignation or even impeachment.

The conflict escalated afterward when Barr announced that he would not show up for a parallel hearing Thursday before the Democrat-controlled House Judiciary Committee. Barr objected to the format of questioning, which would have included questioning by staff lawyers, not just lawmakers. Democrats may now opt to subpoena him, setting up a possible showdown in court.

“He is terrified of having to face a skilled attorney,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, the committee’s chairman.

In just 11 weeks in office, Barr has become a lightning rod for criticism for minimizing the findings of Mueller’s report and publicly embracing the president’s explanations of his actions. Senate Democrats took the opportunity Wednesday to excoriate him before a national television audience.

“Mr. Barr, now the American people know that you are no different from Rudy Giuliani or Kellyanne Conway or any of the other people who sacrifice their once decent reputation for the grifter and liar who sits in the Oval Office,” Sen. Mazie K. Hirono, D-Hawaii, told him, likening the attorney general to the president’s personal lawyer and White House counselor.

“You put the power and authority of the office of the attorney general and the Department of Justice behind a public relations effort to help Donald Trump protect himself,” she added. “Finally, you lied to Congress.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, and the committee chairman, scolded Hirono for being unfair. “You slandered this man from top to bottom,” he said.

Democrats skipped over the fact that Mueller accused Trump of no crime and instead focused on the evidence within his report that they still saw as proof of wrongdoing. Republicans dismissed the report’s damning elements and shifted attention to what Trump has called the actual scandal, the fact that he was investigated in the first place.

Picking up themes that have animated Trump’s public appearances and Twitter feed, Republicans accused President Barack Obama’s administration and former FBI officials of orchestrating a scheme “to overturn a democratic election,” as Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri put it. “And to my mind, that’s the real crisis here.”

Sen. Mike Lee of Utah said the president’s enemies have spread unfounded innuendo. “What we have heard is as baseless as any conspiracy theory that we have seen in politics, any that I can think of,” Lee said. “The only difference here is that the purveyors of this conspiracy were in many cases prominent members of the opposition party.”

Barr, 68, who is serving his second tour as attorney general, sat impassively through much of the day, his face rarely betraying emotion or energy. Amid bracing attacks on his integrity, he answered curtly and legalistically, only occasionally seeming offended.

He navigated his way through hostile questioning in part by quarreling over the meaning of words like “summary” and “suggest” and “fire.” But at several points, he made clear that he agreed with Trump’s view of the investigation, its origin and the current debate over Mueller’s findings.

“How did we get to the point here where the evidence is now that the president was falsely accused of colluding with the Russians and accused of being treasonous and accused of being a Russian agent and the evidence now is that was without a basis?” Barr asked.

“And two years of his administration have been dominated by the allegations that have now been proven false,” he continued. “And, you know, to listen to some of the rhetoric, you would think that the Mueller report had found the opposite.”

By the end of the day, Barr refused to do it all over again Thursday, even though he had been summoned to testify before the House Judiciary Committee.

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