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What we learned about Barr and ‘his baby’ at the Senate Mueller report hearing

Attorney General William Barr testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on "The Justice Department's Investigation of Russian Interference with the 2016 Presidential Election" on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on May 1, 2019. | Photo by Mandel Ngan / AFP/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — “Attorneys don’t put things in writing unless they’re pretty serious about them,” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said when it was his turn to grill Attorney General William Barr at what turned out to be a contentious, highly partisan Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday over the Mueller Report.

“There’s an old rule in politics: A good politician doesn’t write a letter and doesn’t throw one away,” Durbin said.

Durbin’s comment reflected the impact of the bombshell story the Washington Post broke Tuesday night about an unusual letter Special Counsel Robert Mueller wrote to Barr.

Democrats threw a spotlight on that letter, revealed to the public on the eve of a hearing where Barr was previously scheduled to testify.

Mueller in the March 27 letter complained to Barr that the four-page “summary letter” Barr sent to Congress on March 24 did not “fully capture the context, nature and substance of this Office’s work and conclusions.”

Mueller’s letter loomed large during the hearing.

Barr did not volunteer the existence of the letter in previous congressional testimony last month related to the Mueller report, and only turned it over to the Senate Judiciary panel Tuesday morning, when his hand was forced.

During an April 20 hearing, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., asked Barr, “Did Bob Mueller support your conclusion?” Barr replied, “I don’t know whether Mueller supported my conclusion.”

Van Hollen said in a Wednesday tweet, “Barr totally misled me, the Congress, and the public. He must resign.”

Democrats, not the Republicans on the panel, raised the question of whether Barr was acting as an independent player or more as President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer and public relations agent.

Barr was touchy about Mueller’s letter.

To Durbin’s point, under questioning from Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Ct., near the end of the hearing, Barr said that after getting it, he called Mueller and said, “Bob what’s with the letter? You know, why not just pick up the phone and call me if there’s an issue.”

Barr, by this time apparently a bit weary, said to Blumenthal, “The letter’s a bit snitty and I think it was probably written by one of (Mueller’s) staff people.”

That prompted the dictionary folks @MerriamWebster to helpfully tweet, “To be ‘snitty’ is to be disagreeably ill-tempered. Got it?”

Barr wrote in his March 24 letter that Mueller did not find the Trump campaign conspired with Russians in 2016. Since Mueller declined to decide whether Trump attempted to obstruct justice into the Russia probe, Barr decided to decide. He stated in his four-page letter he found nothing in the report to support a charge.

But a redacted 448-page version of the report, released weeks later, on April 18, showed that Trump was not exonerated by any means, with Mueller detailing 10 episodes of potential obstruction.

Meanwhile, Trump used the time to try to cement into public opinion that there was “no collusion, no obstruction” and no point in Democrats pursuing impeachment.

The hearing exposed a fundamental disagreement on Mueller’s special counsel role regarding the investigation of a president. Justice Department policy precludes indicting a president.

Was it Mueller’s job to tell the story to Congress and to the public about Russian interference and Trump’s alleged obstruction attempts or just make a prosecutorial call?

Barr testified that he was surprised Mueller declined to make a decision about Trump and obstruction — leaving the door open for him to walk through. “We were, frankly, surprised that they were not going to reach a decision on obstruction.”

Barr even objected to calling the four-pager he sent to Congress a “summary letter” about the 448-report. He likened it more to delivering a verdict.

We won’t know until Mueller testifies before a House or Senate committee what on earth he thought was going to happen after he turned in his report.

Did Mueller fully realize that Barr would make the prosecutorial call he declined to make?

Why did Mueller turn down an offer Barr said he gave him to review the four pages he issued? Did he realize that favor it did for Trump?

Barr said Mueller was the equivalent of a U.S. Attorney, and when his report was done and sent to the Attorney General, “at that point, it was my baby.”

Barr decided after the Senate grilling to skip the Thursday Democratic-controlled House Judiciary Committee hearing.

FOOTNOTE: Three Democratic presidential candidates are on the committee. Former prosecutors, Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Kamala Harris, D-Calif., both crisply pushed Barr and plowed some new ground. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., wasted his allotted time with a rambling showboating speech.