Why the Democrats Can’t Nail Bill Barr

The long-awaited testimony of Trump’s most powerful Cabinet member yielded more venting than questions, and few answers. There’s a reason for that.

Chip Somodevilla / AP

House Democrats have been waiting for more than a year to grill Attorney General Bill Barr, a man they’ve accused of all manner of professional misconduct—including repeatedly and inappropriately intervening to protect President Donald Trump and deploying federal agents to incite violence in American cities.

Today they finally had their chance, as Barr testified, at long last, before the House Judiciary Committee. For Trump and Barr’s toughest critics, however, it was a frustrating experience. Barr defended the Justice Department’s handling of protests in Portland, Oregon, and other cities—“We’re not out to cause trouble,” he said—and his decision to order a reduction in the sentence that federal prosecutors had requested for Trump’s longtime associate Roger Stone (a punishment the president eventually commuted). “The judge agreed with me,” the attorney general insisted, in a rare moment when his voice betrayed annoyance. He denied that there was “systemic racism” in police departments across the country, but was barely pressed to defend that assertion.

Democrats have a model for effective congressional oversight: last year’s impeachment hearings against Trump. Though the Senate did not remove the president from office, House Democrats showed how televised hearings could bring to light government conduct that had previously been shielded from public view. The charges were focused, not a hodgepodge of serious but largely unrelated scandals. Democrats turned the initial questioning over to skilled litigators and gave them time to ask witnesses detailed questions and follow-ups. Lawmakers then had their own opportunity.

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.”

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.

“I know your story,” Representative Hank Johnson of Georgia told Barr at another point, interrupting the witness before he could complete a thought. “I’m telling my story. That’s what I’m here to do,” Barr replied.

Republicans regularly spoke up in Barr’s defense, often giving him the time—and a friendlier platform—that Democrats had refused him. “You can give a speech or you can ask questions. If you do the latter, you need to give the witness a chance to answer them,” Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, a conservative who’s no stranger to grandstanding, chided Democrats at one point.

If the Democrats’ impeachment hearings were an extraordinary example of congressional oversight, today’s hearing marked a return to normal—and it showed. One of the House’s impeachment lawyers, Daniel Goldman, formerly of the House Intelligence Committee, even criticized the Judiciary Committee’s questioning of Barr today. Senior Democrats have mused about impeaching Barr, but today they chose to subject him to standard questioning as opposed to a more focused, more rigorous, and less overtly political interrogation. Perhaps Barr would not have agreed to a different format, and the Democrats’ long wait for his appearance before the House would have dragged on. But the result today was an oversight hearing that was mostly a venting session, leaving a long and growing list of questions unanswered.