As House Democrats prepare for a clash with Attorney General William Barr over the terms of a committee hearing on Thursday, Senate Democrats are getting ready for their own showdown.
Barr is set to testify Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and he is all but guaranteed to face hostile questions from Democrats over his handling of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election. Barr’s appearance will be his first before Congress since the report’s public release April 18.
Although he will face a friendlier audience from Senate Republicans on the committee, his testimony will provide a blueprint for follow-up questions from Democrats and Republicans alike on the House Judiciary Committee, where he is scheduled to appear the following day. Among the areas of focus for Democrats will be the Mueller report’s details of nearly a dozen instances of possible obstruction of justice by President Donald Trump, as well as Russian election meddling.
“I’ll be focusing on Part One of the report about Russia and why they are not helping me to get that Secure Elections Act done when the report is so thorough when it comes to Russian invasion of our democracy,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), referring to bipartisan legislation to secure elections from cybersecurity threats. “Secondly, I’ll be harkening back to some of my obstruction questions that I asked him during the hearing because he actually said some things were obstruction.”
Klobuchar, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is running for president in the 2020 election.
Senate Democrats on the committee haven’t exactly had a friendly relationship with the attorney general. During his confirmation hearing, Barr came under fire for writing an unsolicited, 19-page memo to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein last year that described Mueller’s investigation into possible obstruction by the president as “fatally misconceived.” The Judiciary Committee voted along party lines to send his nomination to the full Senate.
Since his confirmation, Barr has continued to spar with Democrats. After receiving the special counsel’s report in late March, Barr sent a four-page summary to the Hill that said the report did not find evidence of a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia, but did not come to a conclusion on whether the president obstructed justice. Barr and Rosenstein came to a determination themselves that the president had not obstructed justice.
“I feared that this was going to happen after the 19-page memo he volunteered to the Trump defense team,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the Democratic whip and a member of the Judiciary Committee. “And Barr lived up to it, sadly, with his reaction to the Mueller report. I’m sure there will be many questions about the inconsistencies of his statements and a lot of questions about where we go from here, particularly when it comes to the threat of Russia.”
Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Mazie Hirono of Hawaii declined to go into specifics about what they’d be asking Barr. But both expressed distrust of the attorney general.
“There are some really obvious questions about how he announced the report,” Blumenthal said. He added that when it came to the question of whether Trump obstructed justice, “There was no analysis that could justify his statement. His conclusion after reading that report was laughable.”
Hirono said: “What can I ask him that he’s going to give me a straight answer? Not much. So I may have some other things to say about it.”
Senate Republicans, while friendlier to Barr, are expected to ask the attorney general about mismanagement at the Justice Department. Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, along with Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley and Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, sent a letter earlier this month asking for additional information from an inspector general report on the FBI’s handling of its investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. Graham has said that he will investigate whether officials at the FBI and the Justice Department tried to influence the 2016 election to prevent Trump from getting elected.
Grassley, a member of the committee, said he would ask Barr how serious he was “about looking at our FBI and CIA instituting a collusion accusation and misuse of [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance] courts and all that, against what never happened — that there wasn’t any collusion.”
While House Democrats have sparred with the Justice Department over whether the Judiciary Committee’s staff can question Barr on Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing the day before will have a standard format with at least one round of questions, according to a spokesperson for the committee.
Wednesday’s hearing will take place at the same time that House Judiciary Committee members will vote on a motion to allow staff to question Barr.
“That’ll be a balancing act,” said a House Republican aide about the split-screen moment.