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Where Mueller smelled smoke, Barr saw no 'fire'

Attorney General William Barr testifies Wednesday before the

Attorney General William Barr testifies Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Credit: Getty Images/Win McNamee

A snit hits the fan

Democrats accused William Barr of behaving more like Donald Trump's attorney than a U.S. attorney general. After downplaying Robert Mueller's written complaint about his handling of the special counsel's report, Barr upped his beefs with Mueller, including that letter, which he found "a bit snitty."

When the reviews of Barr's five hours of testimony Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee came in, one stood out. “I heard that the attorney general was really, really solid and did a great job today,” Trump told a Boston radio interviewer. Under disbelieving questioning from the panel's Democrats, Barr stuck to an interpretation of Mueller's findings that seemed more benign than the special counsel's, especially on questions Mueller raised about potential obstruction of justice by the president in the Russia investigation.

For example, Mueller's report detailed how Trump tried to get then-White House counsel Don McGahn to get rid of Mueller. Barr said there was a distinction between directing McGahn to "fire Mueller" and asking to have him "removed" based on a Trump claim of a conflict of interest. McGahn found the conflict claim over a 2011 dispute on golf club dues "silly" and didn't carry out the order.

Months later, Trump, responding to a New York Times story about the episode, told McGahn to create a false written record stating that Trump didn't tell him to get rid of Mueller. Barr said Trump could have truly believed the story was inaccurate.

But Mueller noted Trump's instruction to write a letter "for our records" came about 10 days after the report — "well past the typical time to issue a correction for a news story," which "indicates the president was not focused solely on a press strategy" but "the ongoing investigation."

Barr took a shot at Mueller for not coming to his own conclusion on whether Trump obstructed justice. "I think that if he felt that, he shouldn't go down the path of making a traditional prosecutive decision, then he shouldn't have investigated," the attorney general said.

As for the complaint in Mueller's letter (read it here) that Barr's four-page synopsis March 24 failed to "fully capture the context, nature and substance" of the report, Barr maintained that Mueller was really upset by media coverage. The letter didn't say that. For more, see Newsday's story by Tom Brune.

Other probes of Trump and foes

While choosing not to echo Trump's language of "total exoneration," Barr got into the same spirit in response to Democrats' attacks.

“Two years of his administration have been dominated by the allegations that have now been proven false, and to listen to some of the rhetoric, you would think the Mueller report had found the opposite,” Barr said.

Democrats asked Barr about 12 ongoing federal investigations spun off from Mueller's probe, which include a look into Trump Organization finances, and whether he's spoken with anyone in the White House about them. He said he didn't recall any "substantive" conversations about them. He also said he wouldn't recuse himself.

Barr assured Republicans on the committee that he's looking into their allegations of bias and misconduct during the investigation of Trump's 2016 campaign. Trump frequently tweets out calls for the same.

In a tense exchange, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) pressed the attorney general on whether anyone in the White House asked or suggested a potential investigation target for him. After a few moments of silence, Barr responded, "I'm trying to grapple with the word 'suggest.’ ” His last answer: "I don’t know." For video of the Harris-Barr faceoff, click here.

Not in their House

Barr called off an appearance that had been scheduled for Thursday at a House Judiciary Committee hearing because the Democrats in charge of that panel wanted to have staff attorneys conduct a round of questioning.

Committee chairman Jerry Nadler (D-Manhattan) threatened to move to have Barr held in contempt if he doesn't show.

Nadler said the panel is hoping to have Mueller appear on May 15. Barr said earlier he wouldn't object to that, but efforts on Capitol Hill to get McGahn to testify could meet resistance.

“We haven’t waived his privilege," Barr told the Senate hearing. His use of "we" created a storm on social media, with critics of Barr saying it highlighted how he has used his office as an extension of the White House.

Janison: No draining this swamp

For the "America First" president, personal business considerations also often take first place. Newsday's Dan Janison takes note of some recently reported examples.

Such as when a group of Trump aides sent the bartender away at Mar-a-Lago and helped themselves to top-shelf liquor, according to ProPublica, the Trump-owned resort got the White House to pick up the tab. The Trump Organization also charges visiting official staff the top $540-a-night rate for Mar-a-Lago rooms, expenses passed on as well to taxpayers.

It's not just the U.S. government picking up room charges at Trump properties. Foreign governments do, too. A federal judge this week refused to dismiss a lawsuit by 198 members of Congress charging Trump violated the "emoluments" clause, which bars federal officeholders from taking payments from other countries' governments without legislative consent.

The ever-litigious Trump and three of his children filed suit in federal court, trying to keep two banks from responding to subpoenas from those in Congress curious about his financial dealings.

War of attrition

The Trump White House and the Trump Organization may not ultimately prevail in the courts on their stonewalling of House Democrats' subpoenas, but they could run out the clock leading up to the 2020 election, The Wall Street Journal reports.

The battle has Democrats talking again about impeachment — this time over Trump's refusal to respect the oversight authority of Congress, according to The New York Times.

But Politico writes they are also mulling another strategy: "There’s a big sentiment amongst some that they should ‘Benghazi’ Trump,” said a former senior House Democratic aide, referring to how Republicans relentlessly held hearings seeking to cast blame on Hillary Clinton for the 2012 terrorist attack on a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Libya.

Comey: Trump devours souls

A month ago, former FBI Director James Comey said Barr deserved "the benefit of the doubt" on his handling of the Mueller report.

Comey doesn't think so anymore.

An op-ed by Comey in The New York Times counted Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein among "accomplished people lacking inner strength" who "can't resist the compromises necessary to survive Mr. Trump," whom he called "an amoral leader."

Comey wrote: "Trump makes everyone a co-conspirator to his preferred set of facts, or delusions." People will quietly go along, telling themselves they're serving a higher purpose, he said.

"Of course, to stay, you must be seen as on his team, so you make further compromises. You use his language, praise his leadership, tout his commitment to values. And then you are lost. He has eaten your soul," Comey wrote.

What else is happening:

  • Trump fired off 59 retweets before 7 a.m. attacking a national firefighters' union for endorsing Democrat Joe Biden.
  • Biden earned a four-Pinnochios slap from The Washington Post Fact Checker for saying "all" of the 2018 tax cuts "went to folks at the top and corporations." The wealthy got more, but most Americans got something.
  • A Biden son's business in Ukraine has become fodder for Trump opposition research.
  • Hillary Clinton posed a "hypothetical" appeal on an MSNBC program: "China, if you're listening, why don't you get Trump's tax returns?” 
  • The White House is facing Democratic resistance to a new request for $4.5 billion in emergency funds for the U.S.-Mexico border. Much of it is for the housing of detained migrants, but House Appropriations chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-Westchester) said the administration also is seeking to "double down on cruel and ill-conceived policies.”
  • Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told Congress Wednesday that the military needs to "get back to our primary mission" and he wants to know how much longer troops will be needed at the border.
  • Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and other Republicans are threatening to oppose Trump's trade agreement with Mexico and Canada if he doesn't lift steel and aluminum tariffs against the two countries, The Washington Post reports. Trump also is seeking to mollify Democrats' complaint, knowing he'll need support from some of them.

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