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Bill Barr Battles Democrats to a Draw

In lieu of oversight, Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee pepper Trump’s bag man with canned questions and grandstanding.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The House Judiciary Committee’s Democratic members spent more than a year trying to haul Attorney General Bill Barr into a hearing room. They had no shortage of topics to cover when he finally appeared on Tuesday: the Russia investigation and his efforts to undermine it last year, his subsequent probes into the investigators who launched it, his brief stint as the ersatz governor-general of the District of Columbia in June, his dismissals of key United States attorneys, his interventions in Trump allies’ legal troubles, and much more.

The Trump era is a hard lesson on the limits of congressional oversight, especially since the 2018 midterms. His administration resists most serious efforts by House Democrats to probe the inner workings of the executive branch as it tries to run out the clock before the November election. Those clashes peaked during last year’s impeachment battle when Trump refused all cooperation with congressional investigators, followed by a slow-rolling purge of inspectors general after the Senate voted to acquit him. Placing Barr before an open hearing under oath gave the House a rare, fleeting opportunity to question one of the most important figures in Trumpworld.

When the fateful moment arrived on Tuesday, however, Democratic lawmakers largely fell short. Only a handful of them asked probing or useful questions about Barr’s role in these events. Some relied upon a pre-written sequence of queries that could not (or would not) be changed depending on his answers. Many ultimately spent the hearing delivering speeches and denunciations about Barr in particular and the Trump administration in general, usually with a question or two slipped in at the end. It was rarely productive and even less frequently enlightening.

The opening line of questions by House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler foreshadowed what was to come. When he tried to question Barr about his conversations with Trump concerning reelection and a Justice Department anti-crime operation in major U.S. cities, Barr dodged and weaved. At times, he described his conversations with Trump in vague terms. At other times, Barr refused to discuss his conversations with the president at all. Nadler, along with the Democrats’ early interrogators, like Zoe Lofgren and Sheila Jackson Lee, relied upon what appeared to be a scripted series of questions to which they hewed so firmly that they essentially denied themselves the opportunity to ask follow-ups or pursue lines of inquiry.

On Twitter, prominent legal figures expressed dismay in the early goings. “Disappointing hearing,” Preet Bharara, a former U.S. attorney for Manhattan, opined, “and getting worse.” Daniel Goldman, who questioned witnesses for House Democrats during last year’s impeachment inquiry, described Nadler’s opening inquiries as “ineffective.” Andrew Weissman, who worked on former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team, said that Democrats and Republicans alike should have relied on  “experienced questioners and leave political speeches to addressing the results of the hearing.”

Barr, for his part, left no illusions about his central role in the Trump administration. He described the Russia investigation as “bogus” in his opening statement, insisted that there was no systemic racism in American law enforcement, and claimed his interventions in the Roger Stone and Michael Flynn cases were in defense of the rule of law instead of an attack on it. At one point, when questioned about the administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, he blamed early testing failures by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the Obama administration, which had been out of power for three years when the first cases emerged in China last December.

It would be unfair to single out House Democrats for their subpar performance on Tuesday. Many Senate Democrats also struggle with questioning high-profile witnesses. In this hearing and others, Republican lawmakers have also long used hearings as an opportunity to grandstand and perform soliloquies in recent years, often in the president’s defense. Jim Jordan, the House Judiciary Committee’s ranking GOP member, used part of his opening statement to show a series of contextless video clips, purportedly from recent U.S. protests, to make sweeping claims about violence in major American cities.

Some lawmakers asked important questions that fit uneasily into the oversight hearing. Two lawmakers, Maryland’s Jaime Raskin and Washington’s Pramila Jayapal, pressed Barr about the administration’s disparate response to armed anti-lockdown demonstrators, including those who bore Confederate flags and stormed Michigan’s legislature in May. It’s fair to question (and fairly easy to answer) why Trump and his allies expressed sympathy with those groups while lashing out at anti-racism protesters after the killing of George Floyd a few weeks later. But while federal agents have the legal authority to protect Portland’s federal courthouse, that jurisdiction wouldn’t extend to state property where state and local police would be responsible.

Democratic Representative Eric Swalwell fared better than most of his colleagues while questioning Barr about his role in the Roger Stone prosecution. At one point, he asked whether Barr had intervened in any other federal criminal case as he had for Stone. “Not that I recall,” Barr replied, effectively confirming that he had singled out the president’s ally for special treatment. “Does that seem like something you would recall?” Swalwell asked in response. He also grilled Barr extensively about Trump’s commutation of Stone’s sentence, noting that Barr had told the Senate last year that it would be a crime for a president to offer pardons in exchange for a witness who refused to incriminate him.

Louisiana’s Cedric Richmond chastised Barr for invoking John Lewis in his opening statement while defending federal agents who attack protesters in the streets. “I would just suggest that actions speak louder than words and that you really should keep the name of the Honorable John Lewis out of the Justice Department’s mouth,” he told the attorney general. While that moment played well on social media, Richmond also managed to get Barr to admit that he had no proof to support his claims that foreign governments could use fake mail-in ballots to undermine the election. (Election experts in multiple states have also said such a plot would be virtually impossible to carry out.)

Congress’s shortcomings in this area are nothing new, unfortunately. When lawmakers prepared to question Special Counsel Robert Mueller about his findings last year, I worried that the standard format for hearings would prove disastrous at make-or-break moments. Five-minute question segments all too often devolve into shouting matches about limited time as lawmakers blaze through a set of predetermined questions without deviation or clarification. Television cameras and social media feeds mean that many lawmakers would prioritize viral moments over substantive inquiries. Last year’s impeachment hearings, where questioning was largely done by majority and minority staff counsel, was a rare glimpse at a more useful alternative.

I didn’t expect House lawmakers to stumble across Bill Barr’s Achilles’ heel at Tuesday’s hearing. Nor did I hope that they would get him to reveal, a la Alexander Butterfield, something on the magnitude of the Nixon White House tapes. But it’s not too much for anyone to hope that their lawmakers can do more than the bare minimum when they have the opportunity to question a key executive branch official under oath about abuses and scandals under his watch. As long as they only control half of Congress, hearings are their best opportunity to hold Trump administration officials like Barr accountable. Performative oversight is no oversight at all.