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2020 Democrats showcase campaign styles in Barr hearing

Three presidential contenders questioned attorney general about Mueller findings

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., looks over papers before the start of the Senate Judiciary hearing with Attorney General William Barr. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Three presidential contenders were in the national spotlight Wednesday thanks to their day jobs as senators. And the questions they directed at Attorney General William Barr highlighted how each is also approaching the race to take on President Donald Trump. 

Barr sat before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday for a daylong hearing. He faced questions over his conclusions about special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and potential collusion with the Trump campaign, and whether the president obstructed that probe.

While the Mueller report found evidence that “supports the conclusion” that Trump committed a crime, it did not make a recommendation. Barr repeated several times that his conclusion was that the government would have had difficulty proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the president had a corrupt intent.

Barr predictably faced support from Republicans and ire from Democrats, with the three presidential hopefuls drawing upon different strategies for pinning down the attorney general.

2020 on display

The questions that Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar, California’s Kamala Harris and New Jersey’s Cory Booker asked of Barr — and how they asked them — were also reflective of their presidential campaigns.  

Klobuchar, because of her seniority on the committee, went first, and focused on Russian interference. 

“I’m gonna take us out of the weeds here because I think the American people deserve to know what happened in the election for the highest office of the land,” she said before detailing Mueller’s findings.

Klobuchar was quick to note that her bill known as the Secure Elections Act, which would require election results to be backed up by paper ballots, unexpectedly stalled last year due to White House opposition.

Barr said he was not aware of the legislation, and Klobuchar assured him that it was “the” bipartisan bill on the subject, noting it had support from the Democratic and Republican leaders of the Senate Intelligence panel, as well as from Harris and Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, a Trump ally. She also asked for Barr’s support for the Honest Ads Act, another bipartisan bill she is sponsoring, which involves disclosure of online campaign ads.

The emphasis on her legislation and bipartisan bonafides reflected Klobuchar’s strategy to portray herself as the candidate who can bridge partisan divides and offer pragmatic solutions to the nation’s most pressing problems.

The Minnesota Democrat, whose measured questioning during Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation last year garnered national attention, once again showcased her experience as a prosecutor.

[Podcast: No holds Barr as Democrats grill attorney general]

Klobuchar asked pointed questions about the incidents relating to obstruction that Mueller detailed in his report and stressed the importance of recognizing a pattern of obstruction.

Harris, another former prosecutor who was California attorney general before her election to the Senate in 2016, demonstrated her experience in her questioning. 

Unlike colleagues who spent much of their allotted 7 minutes pontificating, Harris went straight to questions, starting with: “Attorney General Barr: Has the president or anyone at the White House ever asked or suggested that you open an investigation of anyone?”

“I wouldn’t …,” Barr began to respond.

“Yes or no,” Harris pushed.

“I'm trying to grapple with the word ‘suggested.’ There have been discussions of matters out there that — they have not asked me to open an investigation but …”

“Hinted? Inferred?” Harris pressed.

“You don’t know? OK,” she said, before moving on.

Under her questioning, Barr revealed he had not reviewed the underlying evidence that informed Mueller’s report when he decided there was not enough to support an obstruction of justice charge.

Harris leans on her experience as a prosecutor in her presidential campaign as well. When she launched her campaign, she noted that her career has been guided by the oath she took as a young district attorney that included the phrase, “Kamala Harris, for the people.” Indeed, “for the people” is now her presidential campaign’s motto.

Booker, who also worked as a lawyer before entering politics, took a more expansive questioning strategy. He started by lamenting a “new normal that is dangerous to our democracy.”

Booker focused his line of questioning on Barr’s comments earlier this month that Americans should be “grateful” that Russian operatives seeking to influence the election “did not have the cooperation of President Trump or the Trump campaign, or the knowing assistance of any other American.”

The New Jersey Democrat aimed to put Barr on the record over whether Americans should be “grateful” for a number of events: from Trump welcoming a foreign adversary to reveal damaging information on an opponent to the instances of potential obstruction that Mueller described. But Booker’s questioning was bogged down by Barr asking multiple times what the senator was talking about.

Booker’s distress about the direction of the country was reminiscent of his campaign, which describes the nation at an existential crossroads. As he said in his campaign launch video, “We have a common pain, but what we’re lacking is a sense of common purpose.”

Bottom line

Though they differed in style, all three criticized Barr. 

Klobuchar stopped short of saying Barr lied to Congress when he failed to mention that Mueller had raised concerns about the attorney general’s summary of his report. But she did tell Barr “you had to go out of your way” not to mention it.

Both Booker and Harris tweeted out calls for Barr’s resignation after their questioning ended. And they had company from other 2020 hopefuls, with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand making similar calls.

Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, another presidential contender, said Wednesday that Barr should be impeached. 

One presidential candidate who called for Barr’s resignation last month will not get a chance to question the attorney general. Rep. Eric Swalwell of California is a member of the House Judiciary Committee, which was told by the Justice Department late Wednesday that Barr will not be attending a hearing set for Thursday.

Todd Ruger and Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

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