WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats hammered Attorney General William Barr on Wednesday over his handling of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian election interference.
During a combative Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Democratic members pressed Barr on many fronts.
That included previous testimony in which he professed ignorance of any concerns among Mueller’s team about the way he initially characterized their findings.
In reality, Mueller sent a letter to Barr stating that the attorney general’s characterization had not captured “the context, nature and substance” of the special counsel’s work.
“There is now public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation,” Mueller’s letter stated.
Mueller suggested that confusion undermined the whole point of putting a special counsel on the case — to foster public confidence in the investigation’s results.
Barr received that letter just days after delivering his summary and well before his previous testimony.
The letter, which became public this week, prompted Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., to point back to Barr’s previous statements that he hadn’t heard such concerns.
“I feel that your answer was purposely misleading, and I think others do, too,” Leahy said.
Barr said the question he had answered previously was about unidentified members of the Mueller team.
At other times in the hearing Barr also said Mueller never claimed his summary letter was inaccurate. Rather, Mueller wanted more information released, and his beef was actually focused on how news outlets were portraying the situation, Barr said.
He also suggested that the Mueller letter was written by an aide.
“The letter is a bit snitty, and I think it was probably written by one of his staff people,” Barr said.
But Democrats charged that Barr’s whole approach to the investigation has been improper, and some were calling for him to resign after the hearing.
Republican members of the committee on Wednesday tended to use their time to discuss that Mueller found a dearth of evidence that President Donald Trump’s campaign actively conspired with the Russians.
And they suggested that more needs to be done to investigate how the entire probe into the possibility of collusion got started, citing biased FBI agents.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, asked Barr to provide lawmakers with reports and briefings on whether surveillance of the Trump campaign was properly justified, and Barr assured him that what happened was being reviewed.
Grassley also asked what Barr is doing to investigate unauthorized media contacts.
“We have multiple criminal leak investigations underway,” Barr responded.
Sens. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., and Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, both focused their questions on looking ahead to future elections.
Sasse said that many Americans will simply tune out the Mueller report while others will see it through a pro- or anti-Trump filter and miss what’s important.
Russia was “pretty dang clunky at this stuff,” but China is going to be much more sophisticated as time goes on, Sasse said.
Sasse referenced past computer hacks of sensitive information about federal employees and how adversaries can compromise key individuals today without resorting to old-school spy methods.
“And in a digital, cyber era, you don’t need a bar and a hooker anymore,” Sasse said. “You can surround people digitally much easier, and we know that we’re going to be having these kinds of attacks in the future and we need to up our game.”
Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., responded: “Minus the bar and the hooker, we’ll have hearings about all this stuff.”
Ernst said it’s clear that while Russia tampered with the elections, “there was no collusion” with Trump and the country should focus on learning lessons that can help prevent future attacks.
“It doesn’t matter if the attack is coming from the end of a barrel of a gun or the click of a mouse,” Ernst said. “We have to get to the bottom of it.”
Barr told her that the FBI has an impressive program aimed at countering foreign influence in future elections and said that private social media companies are taking steps to counter disinformation campaigns.
Democrats renewed their calls Wednesday to hear directly from Mueller himself, but Graham downplayed that possibility.
The chairman told reporters that Mueller can come and correct the record if he disagrees with Barr’s characterization of their conversations, but otherwise he has no plans to have Mueller testify.
“Enough already,” Graham said. “It is over.”