Five takeaways from Barr's testimony on Mueller

Attorney General William BarrWilliam Pelham BarrBarr defends Trump's use of executive authority, slams impeachment hearings GOP eager for report on alleged FBI surveillance abuse DOJ watchdog won't let witnesses submit written feedback on investigation into Russia probe: report MORE appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday amid a new storm over criticism from special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerSpeier says impeachment inquiry shows 'very strong case of bribery' by Trump Gowdy: I '100 percent' still believe public congressional hearings are 'a circus' Comey: Mueller 'didn't succeed in his mission because there was inadequate transparency' MORE.

What were the main takeaways from Barr’s day of testimony?

Democrats find new impetus

Democrats have new wind in their sails following the revelation that Mueller had written in protest to Barr in March, soon after the attorney general released a four-page document outlining the special counsel’s principal conclusions.

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Mueller objected to Barr’s memo, asserting that it “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance” of his work. Barr insists that Mueller accepted, in a subsequent phone call, that the attorney general had not mischaracterized his report.

The revelation of the Mueller contacts — first reported in quick succession by The Washington Post and The New York Times on Tuesday evening — dominated Wednesday’s hearings, as Democrats cast doubt on Barr’s integrity and truthfulness.

Democrats have long argued that Barr, a Trump appointee, is little more than a patsy for the president. In their view, he used his position to spin the report to the White House’s advantage, enabling a Trump-friendly narrative to solidify in the three weeks between the release of his initial document and the publication of a redacted version of the full report.

That view has been buttressed by events of the past 24 hours. That’s good news for Democrats and bad news for Barr and Trump.

Barr’s credibility takes more hits

It wasn’t only the contacts with Mueller that caused the attorney general problems.

His own answers at times undercut his credibility.

Although he never lost his cool under aggressive questioning from the committee’s Democrats, he often split hairs. 

He suggested there was an important hypothetical difference between firing Mueller and removing him for conflicts of interest. 

Asked by Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinHarris introduces bill to prevent California wildfires Senate Democrats introduce Violence Against Women Act after bipartisan talks break down Harris shares video addressing staffers the night Trump was elected: 'This is some s---' MORE (D-Calif.) about Trump allegedly pressuring then-White House counsel Don McGahn to lie “in order to prevent further criticism of himself,” Barr shot back, “Well, that’s not a crime.” 

Barr also admitted, under questioning from 2020 presidential candidate Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisNew poll catapults Buttigieg to frontrunner position in Iowa Growing 2020 field underscores Democratic divide Harris gets key union endorsement amid polling plateau MORE (D-Calif.), that he had not examined the underlying evidence before concluding that Trump should not be charged with obstruction of justice.

Trump defenders could argue in defense of any of those answers. 

But, in aggregate, his performance created the impression of a man leaning on semantics and the finest of lawyerly distinctions to protect his boss, the president. 

Mixed performances from 2020 Dems

The committee includes three Democrats who are running for president: Harris, Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharNew poll catapults Buttigieg to frontrunner position in Iowa Election 2020: Why I'm watching Amy and Andy 2020 Democrats demand action on guns after Santa Clarita shooting MORE (Minn.) and Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerNew poll catapults Buttigieg to frontrunner position in Iowa Deval Patrick: a short runway, but potential to get airborne Overnight Health Care: Warren promises gradual move to 'Medicare for All' | Rivals dismiss Warren plan for first 100 days | White House unveils rules on disclosing hospital prices | Planned Parenthood wins case against anti-abortion group MORE (N.J.).

Harris had by far the best day. She has shone at committee hearings before, utilizing her skills as a prosecutor to powerful effect.

She did the same on Wednesday — and it went beyond wringing from Barr the admission about not reviewing all the underlying evidence.

The attorney general also struggled to answer Harris’s question about whether Trump or others at the White House had “asked or suggested” that he open an investigation into anyone. 

A hesitant Barr said, “I’m trying to grapple with the word ‘suggest.’ ” He never gave an unequivocal answer.

Klobuchar did not land quite such powerful punches, but she did cause Barr some unease with a question about whether the president’s actions were “consistent with his oath of office.”

Booker’s performance, however, was largely forgettable — a problem for a presidential candidate who has struggled for traction.

After the hearing, Harris and Booker both called for Barr to resign. 

When it comes to making headlines — and sparking excitement among likely primary voters — this was Harris’s day.

GOP circles wagons on Barr

The attorney general can take solace from the fact there is no sign at all that Republicans are weakening in their support for him.

Republican senators on Wednesday sought to keep the focus on alleged FBI misdeeds, as well as hearkening back to the investigation into 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGOP divided over impeachment trial strategy 'Too Far Left' hashtag trends on Twitter Resistance or unhinged behavior? Partisan hatred reaches Trump's family MORE’s use of a private server and email address while she was secretary of State.

Along the way, several paid tribute to Barr. 

Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOvernight Defense: Erdoğan gets earful from GOP senators | Amazon to challenge Pentagon cloud contract decision in court | Lawmakers under pressure to pass benefits fix for military families Erdoğan gets earful from GOP senators at White House Senators confirm Erdoğan played 'propaganda' video in White House meeting MORE (R-Texas) thanked him, saying “you didn’t have to take this job” and drawing parallels between his treatment and that of Supreme Court Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughElection 2020: Why I'm watching Amy and Andy Kavanaugh hailed by conservative gathering in first public speech since confirmation Protesters roll out a screen playing Blasey Ford's testimony ahead of Federalist Society dinner MORE at his confirmation hearings last year. 

Cruz said that Barr had answered the call of duty “knowing full well that you would be subject to the kind of slanderous treatment — the Kavanaugh treatment — that we have seen, of senators impugning your integrity.”

The committee’s chairman, Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGOP divided over impeachment trial strategy GOP eager for report on alleged FBI surveillance abuse Johnson opens door to subpoenaing whistleblower, Schiff, Bidens MORE (R-S.C.), took a similar stance after Barr came under fiery attack from Sen. Mazie HironoMazie Keiko HironoDemocratic senators introduce bill to block funding for border wall live stream Overnight Energy: Perry replacement faces Ukraine questions at hearing | Dem chair demands answers over land agency's relocation | Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders unveil 0B Green New Deal public housing plan Perry replacement moves closer to confirmation despite questions on Ukraine MORE (D-Hawaii). An angry Graham told Hirono that she had “slandered this man.”

Reactions to Barr will split along partisan lines, like so much else in the current political moment. But the fact that there is no dilution of GOP support keeps him safe for now.

All eyes on Mueller

Democrats no longer believe — if they ever did — that Barr’s word can be trusted.

That means they are ardent about hearing from Mueller himself. 

They want to know if the special counsel agrees with Barr’s version of events. 

Did Mueller really agree that Barr’s original four-page memo did not mischaracterize his full report? Was Mueller, as Barr said, offered the chance to review that memo in advance of its release, yet declined?

There is, as yet, no date set for Mueller to testify, though Barr reiterated on Wednesday that he has no objection to him doing so.

Graham, however, told reporters that he would not be inviting the special counsel before his committee. 

“I’m not going to do any more. Enough already. It’s over,” he told reporters.

It is a different story in the House, where Democrats hold the majority. They will now step up their efforts to bring Mueller to Capitol Hill.

Any appearance by the special counsel will be enormous news.