Democrats departed from that format today. Only the politicians asked questions, and they had only five minutes each to do so. Many of the committee’s senior Democrats chose to use their limited time not to seek answers from Barr but to make speeches. “Reclaiming my time” quickly became the anthem of the day. “This is a hearing,” the attorney general complained at one point. “I thought that I was the one who was supposed to be heard.”
Read: Democrats don’t know how to handle Bill Barr
The Democrats who did interrogate the attorney general often interrupted him before he could respond, or neglected to follow up when he did. And the few members who effectively questioned Barr couldn’t get very far in the five minutes they were each allotted. “Disappointing hearing,” opined Preet Bharara, one of two U.S. attorneys in Manhattan that Trump has removed, as well as a former Democratic congressional staffer. “And getting worse,” he added a few minutes later.
After five hours of testimony, it was hard to say whether lawmakers had much new insight into the workings of the Justice Department or the actions of its leadership—ostensibly the purpose of an oversight hearing. Frequent viewers of congressional hearings might say, understandably: Well, what did you expect? Hearings have long been venues for grandstanding and partisan bickering as much as oversight. But Barr is perhaps the most powerful current member of Trump’s Cabinet, and he may be the highest-ranking federal official to appear before Congress before the end of the president’s term.
As I have written, the attorney general is a tricky target for Democrats; Barr is a smart and agile lawyer who frequently picks apart the premise and wording of questions, and he’s able to couch even his most controversial decisions in relatively inoffensive legalese. Over the course of five hours today, a few Democrats questioned Barr with precision. Representative Ted Deutch of Florida pressed Barr on the inconsistencies in his explanation of the Stone case, while Representative Eric Swalwell of California asked Barr why he was not investigating Trump’s decision to commute Stone’s sentence. “Why should I?” the attorney general replied. Barr seemed to lose his patience as the hearing went on, snapping back at Democrats who would not let him fully answer their charges.
Yet there was little of the sharp, focused questioning that Democratic senators such as Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kamala Harris of California, as well as Republican John Kennedy of Louisiana, have deployed successfully against Trump officials and nominees. Instead, Democrats found themselves hamstrung by the sheer volume of their grievances—a result of the administration’s successful stonewalling of congressional oversight during the year and a half since Republicans lost their House majority. From the Robert Mueller report to the Stone case to the removal of federal prosecutors to the most recent civil-rights protests, lawmakers simply had too much to get off their chest and not enough interest in hearing what Barr had to say about it all. When Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York asked the attorney general what he’d do if Trump lost the election in November but refused to leave office in January, Barr replied: “If the results are clear, I would leave office.” It was a vague and evasive answer, but there was little follow-up.