Atty. Gen. William Barr was a no-show at a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday, unreasonably objecting to the committee’s plan to have some of the questioning handled by staff lawyers — a practice for which there is plenty of precedent. Democrats are also threatening to hold Barr in contempt of Congress for not turning over an unredacted copy of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report, but it’s unlikely that any contempt action would be pursued by the Justice Department, which, after all, is headed by Barr himself.
Yet even with skilled lawyers questioning the attorney general, it’s likely that Barr would have spun Mueller’s report in a way favorable to President Trump, just as he did in testimony on Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Because that’s what Barr does. He’s done it repeatedly since he received the Mueller report. For instance, according to the Mueller report, Trump ordered then-White House Counsel Donald McGahn to have Mueller removed. But Barr had an unconvincing exculpatory explanation handy. “There is a distinction between saying to someone, ‘Go fire him, go fire Mueller,’ and saying, ‘Have him removed based on conflict,’” Barr told senators. But those supposed “conflicts of interest” — including a billing dispute Mueller had with a Trump golf club — were seemingly pretexts for ending the investigation the president regarded as a “witch hunt.”
Here’s another example: The attorney general tried to minimize the importance of a letter he received from Mueller whose existence became known shortly before Barr’s testimony. In the letter, Mueller complained that Barr’s four-page summary of Mueller’s conclusions on March 24 “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance” of the investigation. In his Senate testimony, Barr suggested that the “snitty” missive was written by Mueller’s subordinates.
Congress, which has the authority — and the duty — to investigate a president’s alleged misconduct outside of the criminal justice system, needs to bring Mueller himself in to talk about his report, so that he can explain it in a way that does capture its “context.” Among other things, Mueller should clarify his seemingly mixed message on obstruction of justice, in which he declined to draw a “traditional prosecution or declination decision” yet didn’t clearly explain why. On the one hand, he cites a Justice Department legal opinion holding that a sitting president cannot be indicted as his reason, but he also says that after a “thorough factual investigation,” he could neither conclude that Trump committed a crime nor that he did not.
Plenty of questions about the report remain. Congress needs to get to the bottom of them, understand the prosecutors’ decisions on obstruction of justice and make its own decisions about how to proceed.
Follow the Opinion section on Twitter @latimesopinionand Facebook