To the attorney general: 'The President ordered the White House counsel to have Special Counsel Mueller fired. He fabricated evidence to cover it up. And, whether or not you could make a criminal charge of this, it is unacceptable.'
Sen. Chris Coons , a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, today questioned Attorney General William Barr in the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election.
“I frankly, Mr. Attorney General, have concerns that your March 24 letter obscured that conduct, and as a result worked to protect the President for several weeks rather than give the full truth to the American people as I now believe Special Counsel Mueller was urging you to do as reflected in the letter we just received today,” said Coons.
From the video:
Coons: The special counsel was appointed first to investigate Russia’s attack on our 2016 election, and potential coordination with the Trump campaign. And I’m glad the chairman started this hearing by recognizing we needed to focus on that demonstrable assault on our democracy, and to protect our elections going forward, and I look forward to working with my colleagues, whether it’s on sanctions, bills, or the Lankford-Klobuchar bill.
But we genuinely need leadership from you, Mr. Attorney General, and from the White House and our president to make sure that we are doing everything we can to protect our next election.
But frankly, we also can’t ignore volume 2 of this report, which I think details unacceptable conduct by the president and his campaign -- and that includes trying to fire the special counsel without cause. I appreciated the leadership of Senators Graham and Tillis, Booker and I, in a bill to try and protect the special counsel, something that I think is still worth doing for future special counsels.
We were told by many of our colleagues there was nothing to worry about, because the president wasn’t going to fire the special counsel, but I was particularly struck by some reports in the second volume that the president attempted to do exactly that. And I frankly, Mr. Attorney General, have concerns that your March 24 letter obscured that conduct, and as a result worked to protect the president for several weeks rather than give the full truth to the American people, as I now believe Special Counsel Mueller was urging you to do, as reflected in the letter we just received today.
So, I’m going to ask you some questions about the report, but the bottom line is that I think we need to hear more about the special counsel’s work from the special counsel.
According to Special Counsel Mueller’s report, in June of 2017, President Trump called White House Counsel McGahn and directed him to have the special counsel removed. And I quote, and this is from about page 85, 86.
McGahn called the president, called him at home twice and on both occasions directed him to call Rosenstein and say that Mueller had conflicts and could no longer be special counsel. There were no credible conflicts.
McGahn testified that he had shared that these conflicts were silly, were not real and Chris Christie advised President Trump, about the same time, that there were no substantive bases, no good cause, to fire the special counsel.
In one call the president said, “Call Rod. Tell Rod Mueller has conflicts, can’t be the special counsel.” Quote, “Mueller has to go.”
And I assume he didn’t mean go to Cleveland or go to Seattle, he meant go, be fired. Call me back when you do it.
I think the president’s demands to fire Mueller without cause are alarming and unacceptable. And Mr. Attorney General, not one bit of what I just described was in your March 24th letter to this committee, was it?
Attorney General Barr: No.
Coons: But it was in the summaries that were offered to you by Special Counsel Mueller and his team which you chose not to release, is that correct?
Barr: They were in complete form in the final report which I was striving to make public and which I did make public.
Coons: Which I respect and appreciate. But a critical three weeks passed between when you delivered the letter with the focus on the principal conclusions and when we ultimately got the redacted report. And what I take from the Mueller letter to you --
Barr: Why are they critical?
Coons: I would think that the volume 2 summary would have revealed to the general public a whole range of inappropriate actions by the president and his core team. I’ll go to a second episode that I think is important. On February 5 of 2018, over a week after the story broke publicly, that the president ordered his White House counsel to fire the special counsel investigating the president, the president demanded that McGahn create a false record saying the president never directed McGahn to fire the special counsel. The president wasn’t looking for a press statement here, he wasn’t looking to correct the record, he wanted a fraudulent record for White House records, a letter that wasn’t true. McGahn refused to do it. Again, there is nothing about the president’s request to create a false record in your March 24th letter, is there?
Barr: Well, that’s your characterization of it, and I’ve been through it a couple of times. And, I think it would be difficult for the government to prove that beyond a reasonable doubt. I think there are very plausible alternative explanations. But what I was trying to get out was the final report, and have one issuance of the complete report. I made it clear in the March 24th letter that Bob Mueller didn’t make a decision, but that he felt he could not exonerate the president.
Coons: That’s right.
Barr: I wasn’t hiding that Mueller was presenting both sides of the issue, all of the evidence, but he was not making a call, but he felt he could not exonerate the president. Then I briefly described the process we went through to make a judgment, internal and to the Department of Justice. And as I say, from the public interest standpoint, I felt there should be only one thing issued and it should be the complete report, as complete as it could be.
Coons: And I know we differ in our conclusions about what that meant, but my concern is that that gave President Trump and his folks more than three weeks of an open field to say, I was completely exonerated, when, had you released the summaries of the first and second volume, we would have been more motivated than ever based on the first volume to work cooperatively to protect our next election, and more concerned than ever about misdeeds, about inappropriate actions by the president and by some of his core team as a result of the summary of the second volume.
And at the end of the day, you’ve had a number of exchanges with colleagues where you’ve said, I can’t tell you why Mueller chose not to charge. I want to hear that from Bob Mueller. I think we should hear from Special Counsel Mueller.
Let me move on to a point that Senator Sasse was just asking but that I think is worth revisiting, about foreign intelligence and the role in our elections.
The reason we had this investigation in the first place, was George Papadopoulos was told the Russians had dirt on Hillary Clinton, the Russians had a direct contact to Donald Trump Jr., and offered to give dirt about his father’s opponent. Donald Trump Jr. said, “I love it,” and invited the campaign chairman and the president’s son-in-law to a meeting with the Russians to get it.
Barr: Who did you say offered it? Who did you say offered it?
Coons: In the second instance, Russians made an offer to Donald Trump. I have 30 seconds. Let me get to a question if I could.
Going forward, what if a foreign adversary, let’s now say North Korea, offers a presidential candidate dirt on a competitor in 2020? Do you agree with me the campaign should immediately contact the FBI? If a foreign intelligence service, a representative of a foreign government says, “we have dirt on your opponent,” should they say, “I love it, let’s meet,” or should they contact the FBI?
Barr: If a foreign intelligence service does, yes.
Coons: Here’s my core concern. The president ordered the White House counsel to have Special Counsel Mueller fired. He fabricated evidence to cover it up. And whether or not you could make a criminal charge of this, it is unacceptable.
And everyone who said we didn’t have to worry about President Trump firing the special counsel was flat out wrong. The Russians offered the Trump campaign dirt on Hillary Clinton and the Trump campaign never reported that to the FBI. Instead they tried to conceal the meeting, and misled the American people.
And I think we have to work on a bipartisan basis going forward, to protect our elections from a repeat on this. And we need your leadership and the president’s.
You somehow concluded that the president didn’t obstruct justice, and you announced you had cleared the president 25 days before the public could read the Mueller report for themselves.
I think it’s no wonder Special Counsel Mueller thought your four-page letter created public confusion about critical aspects of the results of the investigation, and that that threatened to undermine the central purpose for which he was appointed.
I think we need to hear from Special Counsel Mueller, I think we need to hear from Don McGahn, and I think we need to how we are going to handle, going forward, the fact that you are supervising 12 ongoing cases that came out of the Mueller investigation and that have been referred. This body has a central role in oversight that I believe we need to exercise given your recent record. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.