William Barr faced criticisms of false or misleading answers as he testified on his handling of the Mueller reportFollow the latest US politics news live The appearance of the US attorney general, William Barr, before the Senate judiciary committee on Wednesday was always certain to be a high-stakes event. Barr had already been accused of misleading the American people in his four-page summary of the Mueller investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Then, on Tuesday, news broke that the special counsel, Robert Mueller, had written a letter to Barr on 27 March complaining about how the attorney general had presented his report to the public. That revelation set up an epic clash between Trump’s handpicked head of the justice department and leaving Democrats scenting blood. Here are five takeaways from the proceedings: William Barr: Trump’s lead defense counsel As the head of the US justice department, Barr swears an oath to the US constitution. Yet at key points in his testimony he let his guard down, speaking as though he were the legal representative of the president. “How did we get to the point here, where the evidence is now that the president was falsely accused of colluding with the Russians?” he said. “Two years of his administration have been dominated by the allegations that have now been proven false.” In fact, Mueller did not look into “collusion” specifically, as it is not a federal offense. His investigation did cite “multiple links between Trump campaign officials and individuals tied to the Russian government”, though it did not establish an overarching conspiracy. Mueller also identified 11 actions in which Trump or his associates had potentially obstructed justice. Mueller’s clear implication was that Congress should decide whether to prosecute those actions as crimes. In the end, Barr stepped in and made his own determination that there was insufficient evidence of obstruction to merit charges. Under intense questioning, the 2020 presidential candidate and Democratic senator from California Kamala Harris forced Barr to admit that he had made that decision without having looked at any of the underlying evidence that Mueller had so painstakingly gathered. “Yet you represented to the American public that the evidence was not ‘sufficient’ to support an obstruction of justice offence,” a disbelieving Harris remarked. Barr’s veracity questioned The attorney general was accused by several Democrats of giving false or misleading answers. Barr told senators that he had had a phone conversation with Mueller after he received the special counsel’s 27 March letter complaining about his four-page summary. Barr said he asked the special counsel whether he thought the summary had been inaccurate, “and he said no but that the press reporting had been inaccurate”. In his letter, released on Wednesday, Mueller was indeed critical of Barr’s summary. It “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance of this Office’s work and conclusions”, he wrote. Several Democrats accused Barr of lying to Congress, pointing to earlier testimony the attorney general had given to a House committee in April in which he said he was unaware of any reservations on the part of Mueller or his team about the accuracy of his summary. Barr was addressing the committee weeks after he had received Mueller’s letter of complaint about just that. Barr was unrepentant, dismissing Mueller’s letter as “a bit snitty” and probably written “by one of his staff people”. Democrats on the warpath Senior Democrats seized the opportunity to vent their fury about the way the Mueller report had been handled, specifically by Barr. The Vermont senator Patrick Leahy accused the AG of testimony that was “purposefully misleading”. Responding to Barr’s less than forthright answers, Sheldon Whitehouse from Rhode Island erupted: “I mean, boy! That’s some masterful hair-splitting.” “History will judge you harshly,” said Richard Blumenthal, from Connecticut. Several Democratic contenders in the 2020 presidential race – both in and out of the Senate hearing – called on Barr to resign. They included Harris, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand and Elizabeth Warren. The harshest criticism came from Mazie Hirono, from Hawaii, who blurted out: “Mr attorney general, give us some credit for knowing what the hell is going on around here with you.” She was reprimanded by the Republican chairing the hearing, Lindsey Graham, who accused her of slandering the witness. Standout performance (1): Lindsey Graham The committee chair distinguished even himself in the lengths he was prepared to go to defend Trump. Instead of focusing on the judiciary committee’s role as a check on both the presidency and the justice department, Graham inaccurately stated that the special counsel had found “no collusion, no coordination, no conspiracy”. He also tried to deflect attention away from Mueller’s actual findings and on to that old chestnut – Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server in her role as former US secretary of state. How that related to Russian efforts to distort the US presidential election was unclear. “It’s over,” Graham declared grandly at the end of the hearing. Given the mood of the Democratic side of the aisle, it didn’t look like that. Standout performance (2): Kamala Harris The senator from California put her experience as her state’s top prosecutor to full use in her grilling of Barr. In just five minutes, she had the US attorney general squirming. “Has the president or anyone at the White House ever asked or suggested that you open an investigation of anyone?” was one of her laser-like probes. “Erm. I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t, ah …” Barr replied. “Yes or no?” she snapped, looking at him as she would a shoplifter in the dock. “I’m trying to grapple with the word ‘suggest’,” Barr floundered. “Hinted, inferred,” Harris offered as alternatives. “I don’t know,” the country’s top law enforcement official said. “You don’t know. OK,” Harris said, and she swiftly moved on.
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