U.S. Attorney General William Barr appeared before a congressional subcommittee on April 9, his first direct contact with a Capitol Hill committee since the completion of special counsel Robert Mueller’s final report on the Russia investigation, sending the media into a virtual frenzy.
However, the AG appeared before a House Appropriations subcommittee, for a hearing billed as “Department of Justice Budget Request for Fiscal Year 2020.” Why, then, was Mueller even mentioned? The answer is simple: Congressional oversight of the executive branch – a concept noticeably absent from the U.S. Constitution – has become something of a joke. Rather, it has become an opportunity, in the first instance, for Congress to co-opt or perhaps usurp the authority of the executive branch and, in the second instance, for purely political grandstanding.
Appropriations Subcommittee Goes Off-Script
The jurisdiction of the Appropriations Committee is laid out in Rule X of the Rules of the House, which defines four broad functions, none of which has anything to do with handling or overseeing Department of Justice investigations. Nevertheless, certain Democrats and Republicans on the committee chose to use Barr’s appearance as an excuse to continue the partisan bickering over the special counsel investigation.
Democrats sought to underscore their conspiracy theory that the attorney general himself was intent on covering for the president, and Republicans repeated their suspicions that the Mueller investigation was fabricated for political purposes and based upon unverified opposition research. None of this has anything to do with appropriations and is just one more sign that Congress as a whole is broken – if not entirely out of control.
Of special note was the initial line of questioning pursued by Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-NY). Lowey wanted Barr to explain how he was able to so quickly produce a four-page summary of Mueller’s report, which is said to be close to 400 pages in length. The chairwoman’s question touched on the Democrats’ narrative that the attorney general’s letter to the House and Senate Judiciary committees was, in effect, a whitewashing of special counsel findings.
Barr’s letter laid out the broad conclusion of the special counsel that no proof of collusion between President Donald Trump, his campaign, or any other American and Russian officials could be established. The attorney general made it clear that his letter was not in fact intended to summarize the entire report but only to convey the bottom-line conclusion. He also pointed out that Mueller did not operate in a vacuum; Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was in the loop – so to speak – with the direction of the investigation and the conclusions being rendered.
Essentially, then, Justice Department leadership knew that no collusion had been established even before Mueller delivered his final report. Moreover, Mueller was aware of the content of Barr’s letter sent to the Judicial committees and clearly did not object to how those conclusions were portrayed.
Barr’s Role in Mueller Report Redactions
The attorney general confirmed to the subcommittee his previous commitment to provide Congress with the complete report by the middle of April. In response to a question from a Republican member on investigations into possible abuse of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act by DOJ and FBI officials, Barr reminded the subcommittee that the DOJ inspector general was investigating that matter and would produce his own report sometime in May.
The Democrats’ lines of questioning indicated that potential redactions to the Mueller report were still a bone of contention. The president’s opponents appear determined to suggest that any details omitted from the Mueller report will amount to some kind of cover-up, despite the fact that Democrats have argued, for 22 months, that Mueller’s motives are above suspicion.
It is fair, then, to predict that the anti-Trump media – and many Democrats and left-wing pundits – will portray Barr as the mastermind behind all redactions, in his effort to protect the president. The DOJ chief made it clear that these redactions will fall into four categories and that he will not be personally making the final decision on what information is withheld.
“This is a separation-of-powers issue,” says Liberty Nation legal affairs editor Scott D. Cosenza, Esq. “The Mueller report is an executive agency production. Aside from information learned during grand jury testimony, it is up to the president’s discretion exactly who sees what is in that report.” With regard to the attorney general’s responsibility, Consenza adds: “General Barr is merely the vehicle through which the president makes this decision.”
Even if he wished to release the entire Mueller report without redactions, the president would certainly defer to the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel and the intelligence community, as to what information should be redacted due to ongoing legal proceedings or national security concerns. The bottom line, then, is that the report will never be made public in its entirety.
The four categories of information Barr cites for potential redaction are grand jury testimony; sources and methods of intelligence gathering; information pertinent to ongoing investigations; and information that identifies individuals who have not been charged with crimes. This last item is likely to displease congressional Democrats who may seek to use parts of the Mueller report to besmirch the character of certain individuals in the president’s orbit, even though these people have not been found guilty of any wrongdoing.
The hearing did encompass other issues that fell within the subcommittee’s jurisdiction, but even those exchanges between the AG and committee members were infused with political nuance. Congressional committees are simply misused. When they are misused to such an extent that the subject matter discussed – second-guessing the special counsel or the attorney general to score partisan points – does not even fall remotely within the committee’s scope of authority, they are a waste of the American people’s time and money.