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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Attorney General William Barr Appears Before Senate; Interview With Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD). Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired May 1, 2019 - 16:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[16:00:00]

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Attorney General Bill Barr defiant while under fire for his handling of Robert Mueller's report, hours after new revelations that the special counsel expressed concerns about how Barr summarized the findings of the sweeping probe.

WILLIAM BARR, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: I asked him, you know, specifically, what his concern was. And he said that his concern focused on his explanation of why he did not reach a conclusion on obstruction. And he wanted more put out on that issue.

RAJU: Barr said he spoke to the special counsel about the concerns.

BARR: I asked him, you know, specifically, what his concern was. And he said that his concern focused on his explanation of why he did not reach a conclusion on obstruction. And he wanted more put out on that issue.

RAJU: Barr contended that Mueller was concerned about media portrayal of the findings.

BARR: I asked him if he was suggesting that the March 24 letter was inaccurate. And he said, no, but that the press reporting had been inaccurate.

RAJU: But Mueller expressed graver concerns in a letter to Barr, writing, the attorney general's letter "did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance of this office's work and conclusions."

Democrats contended the revelations contradicted Barr's previous sworn testimony.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D-VT): Why did you say you were not aware of concerns, when, weeks before your testimony, Mr. Mueller had expressed concerns to you? I mean, that's a fairly simple...

(CROSSTALK)

BARR: Well, I answered the question. And the question was relating to unidentified members who were expressing frustration over the accuracy relating to findings. I don't know what that refers to at all. I talked directly to Bob Mueller, not members of his team.

LEAHY: Mr. Barr, your -- I feel your answer was purposefully misleading. And I think others do, too

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's some masterful hair-splitting.

RAJU: Democrats sharply questioned Barr why he chose not to prosecute Trump on obstruction of justice, despite 10 episodes cited in the report detailing Trump's efforts to undercut the probe, including asking then White House counsel Don McGahn to remove Mueller as special counsel.

But Barr explained why he didn't think that constituted obstruction.

BARR: There's a distinction between saying to someone, go fire him, go fire Mueller, and saying, have him removed based on conflict. They have different results.

RAJU: But, in his report, Mueller wrote that, in seeking to fire the special counsel, "the president sought to exclude his and his campaign's conduct from the investigation's scope."

Barr split from Mueller a few times, including saying he did not understand why Mueller did not make a decision on obstruction.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): Were you surprised he was going to let you decide?

BARR: Yes, I was surprised.

RAJU: Republicans, meanwhile, didn't focus as much on the Mueller report, instead criticizing the Justice Department's handling of the Clinton e-mail probe and pointing to texts from former FBI agent Peter Strzok.

GRAHAM: We know that the person in charge of investigating hated Trump's guts.

RAJU: And questioning why the Russia probe even began.

SEN. JOSH HAWLEY (R-MO): It's open, blatant prejudice, would try to use that to try to overturn a democratic election. And, to my mind, that's the real crisis here.

RAJU: Mueller's investigation spawned 14 other probes. Something that Barr may have discussed with the White House.

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D-CT): Have you had any conversations with anyone in the White House about those ongoing investigations that were spawned or spun off by...

BARR: I don't recall having any substantiative discussion on the investigation.

BLUMENTHAL: Will you recuse yourself from those investigations?

BARR: No.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

RAJU: While this may be over for the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, not over yet for the House Judiciary, which is moving forward with a hearing tomorrow, where they want Bill Barr to come testify.

Barr is still saying that he may not appear because the Democrats want to allow for an additional hour of questioning by staff attorneys. Also, Jake, that same committee, the House Judiciary Committee, has a subpoena for the full unredacted Mueller report to be turned over by -- from the Justice Department today, that subpoena demand not yet make -- Jake.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: All right, Manu Raju on Capitol Hill, thanks so much.

Joining me now also from Capitol Hill, Senator Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland.

His exchange with Attorney General Barr last month took center stage in today's hearing.

Senator, I want to play a clip from your exchange last month with Attorney General Barr. It came two weeks after Barr had received this letter from Mueller outlining Mueller's concerns about his four-page summary.

Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D-MD): Did Bob Mueller support your conclusion?

BARR: I don't know whether Bob Mueller supported my conclusion.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

[16:05:00]

TAPPER: So, knowing now what the truth is, do you think the attorney general was misleading, do you think he committed perjury, or do you think that his hair-splitting was acceptable?

VAN HOLLEN: Well, Jake, his hair-splitting is not acceptable.

He deliberately misled Congress in that response to me, because he knew at the time I asked that question that Bob Mueller had sent him this letter and that Bob Mueller had expressed concerns about the conclusions that the attorney general had reached.

So, when I asked him in that question, does the -- does Bob Mueller agree with you, does he support your conclusions, he knew when he answered my question about the Mueller concerns, but refused to disclose them.

So that is deceptive. We were -- my view is that this attorney general has lost any remaining trust he may have had with the American people. And the American people need to be able to trust the attorney general to be the people's lawyer, and not the president's spokesperson. So, he does need to resign.

TAPPER: He needs to resign. You're calling for him to resign.

So, one thing I want to ask you is, just to play devil's advocate for a second, so he would say -- clearly, he wasn't as transparent as he could have been. He didn't explain what Bob Mueller had just said to him a couple weeks before, even though you asked him.

But he might say, the attorney general, you were asking me about whether or not the -- Bob Mueller agrees with my conclusions. Bob Mueller didn't contact me about my conclusions. Bob Mueller contacted me about my memo and how I was describing his report, and those are two different things.

Again, I get it's not as transparent as it could have been, but would that not be an argument he could make?

VAN HOLLEN: No, I don't think that begins to cut mustard.

I'm just reading from the Mueller letter where he speaks about the Barr memo. And he says it does not fully capture the substance of Mueller's conclusions. What are the conclusions that Mueller reached? They were on two counts. One was the so-called collusion issue. The other was obstruction of justice.

Those were the conclusions that were laid out in the memo and those were the conclusions that Barr was talking about. And so, when Barr told me, in response to a direct question, that he did not know whether Mueller had concerns with his conclusions, it flatly contradicts the letter that Mueller sent him.

TAPPER: So, your Democratic colleagues and 2020 presidential candidates former HUD Secretary Julian Castro, Senator Elizabeth Warren, they took it further. You said that Barr should step down.

They have even said -- I believe it's those two have said that he should be impeached, he should face potential impeachment. Do you agree with that?

VAN HOLLEN: Look, Jake, I think that the House has a very, very full plate right now.

They have got all sorts of important investigations ongoing to try to hold this administration accountable. You have a president who refuses to provide documents. So they have got to decide how to prioritize the time that they have in the House of Representatives.

He should do the right thing and resign. His testimony today indicates that he's not going to -- not thinking about doing that. I thought the way that he belittled the Mueller letter was very revealing.

TAPPER: When he said he thought it was a little snitty and that a staff member probably wrote it.

VAN HOLLEN: Yes, he called it snitty.

And this was obviously an effort by Mueller to document Mueller's concerns. I think we all know that Bob Mueller has been a professional. He doesn't do things lightly. He doesn't contract out his work. And so for the attorney general to call his letter snitty just reveals the fact that the attorney general really never gave the Mueller report its full due and decided to go on a spin mission.

That was what that four-page memo was all about. And Mueller called him on it. And now you have got the attorney general misleading Congress and the public on both counts, both in that four-page memo and Mueller's letter.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: The attorney general today defended his release of the four- page letter, his four-page memo. He compared it to offering a verdict in a trial, just the bottom line, basically, not guilty of this, not guilty of that, and figured that since he was going to release almost the entire Mueller report, the rest of the information would come out eventually.

What did you make of that description?

VAN HOLLEN: I thought he did a lousy job justifying why he, the attorney general, decided to exonerate the president on the obstruction of justice counts.

It's not that he didn't have some kind of authority to do it, although I think Mueller clearly wanted Congress to make those determinations. But, my goodness, if you're going to spend just 48 hours reviewing the Mueller report, you should at least have an explanation for why you don't think that these actions by the president constitute criminal obstruction of justice.

[16:10:17]

I mean, when the president says to Don McGahn, fire -- fire Bob Mueller...

TAPPER: Well, he didn't say fire, but he said get rid of him, yes.

(CROSSTALK)

VAN HOLLEN: Then, when he refuses to do it, he says -- the president says to McGahn, don't tell anybody that I told you to fire Mueller.

I mean, these are serious issues which the attorney general just has glossed over in a very sort of -- you know, as if these are frivolous things, just like he called Bob Mueller's letter snitty.

It suggests a level of unseriousness with respect to the facts from the attorney general. And that's what's unacceptable.

TAPPER: Lastly, Senator, you said that you think that the House is too busy, has too much on its hands, on its plate to begin impeachment proceedings against the attorney general.

Do you think the House should begin impeachment proceedings against President Trump?

VAN HOLLEN: Well, I said that the House has its plate full, and they have to decide how to prioritize, how to move forward on these different issues. So I would leave that decision on the attorney general to them.

With respect to the president, I think that the House has charted the right approach, which is, let's call Bob Mueller before the committee. Let's get the unfiltered story from Bob Mueller about all the different things that are going on and that were discussed at this hearing.

Let's bring some of the other witnesses before us, because the American people really haven't heard this story, right? Not everyone has a chance to read a 400-page report. And I think the public deserves to have that unfiltered testimony from Bob Mueller and others, so they can reach conclusions on this issue.

TAPPER: Maryland Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen, thank you, sir. Always good to have you on.

VAN HOLLEN: Good to be here. Thanks, Jake.

TAPPER: More on our breaking news and the growing call from Democrats running for president for Bill Barr to resign following his testimony today.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:15:49] TAPPER: And we're back with our politics lead. Attorney General Bill Barr under oath on Capitol Hill and facing some really tough questions.

Here's one from Senator Mazie Hirono, Democrat of Hawaii.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. MAZIE HIRONO (D-HI): You put the power and authority of the office of the attorney general and the Department of Justice behind a public relations effort to help Donald Trump protect himself.

Finally, you lied to Congress. Being attorney general of the United States is a sacred trust. You have betrayed that trust. America deserves better. You should resign.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Let's talk about this all with my experts.

And, Jen Psaki, Lindsey Graham, the chairman of the committee said that Senator Hirono was slandering Attorney General Barr. Do you think she went too far?

JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: No. I think she did a simple statement of facts. It was very clear. I think what she did was actually a good model for Democrats. She called out Barr for what he is.

She compared him actually even to Kellyanne Conway, as kind of a spokesperson and defender of Donald Trump. She's become a hero of the left wing of the party for a reason, because she is clear, concise, and straight forward.

I think Lindsey Graham kind of hurt his own reputation today, so I don't think Hirono is particularly worried about what he has to say.

TAPPER: Take a listen, Amanda, to something that Senator Dick Durbin said to Attorney General Barr today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. DICK DURBIN (D-IL): But I find, General Barr, that some of the things that you've engaged in really leave me wondering what you believe your role as attorney general is when it comes to something like this.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: What is the role of the attorney general? Are they supposed to protect the president or are they there for the United States of America? Is it both? Is it complicated?

What do you think?

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Ideally, he should be a referee that can call balls and strikes and say, this is what is lawful, this is what is not, and still represent somewhat of the administration's view. But I think in this hearing today, he was much more of a player on the field.

But Barr --

TAPPER: For President Trump?

CARPENTER: Oh, yes, absolutely. But Barr's not going to be the story that lasts. He is emblematic of a lot of the lies that are told.

I wouldn't have gone as far as Mazie Hirono. I want to hear from Mueller exactly how that conversation went. But the long-term story is, here, are the attempts at obstruction of justice.

And the questioning that Senator Harris did, where she was basically just asking him, did you look at the evidence? And he couldn't say "yes." When Senator Leahy said, tell me more about members of the Trump

campaign being receptive to offers of help from the Russians, and he acted like he didn't know what that meant. To me, that was pretty shameful.

TAPPER: And there was actually a lot of praise on the other side of the aisle from Senators Cruz and Lee for Attorney General Barr. Take a listen to them.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. MIKE LEE (R-UT): I want to thank you for your civility and for your exposure amidst what has been a needlessly and unfairly hostile environment. Your professionalism has been remarkable.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX): If you're hiding something, I'll tell you right now, General Barr, you're doing a very lousy job of hiding it. Because the thing that they're suggesting you hid, you released.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Now, in that last clip, with Senator Cruz, he's referring to the four weeks in which despite what Mueller wanted him to do and release the executive summaries, Barr did not release them. And the argument is that he let this narrative out there that President Trump has been exonerated.

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. That initial press conference where he kind of spun and that four-page memo where he sort of spun that was in the report that no one had seen.

And you heard people talking about it like it was the report. It was not the report. And that narrative got out there and then, you know, not everyone has the chance to read this. And now among some people, that narrative is what's sticking.

And you know, that's exactly what that Mueller letter said. Said that, you know, what you put out there confuses people. I know that Barr tried to blame it on the press, can be blamed for a lot of stuff, but we were not mentioned in that letter.

And so that is what Democrats were talking about, when they were talking about what he was hiding, you heard several that didn't go out and just call him a liar.

You had several Democrats referencing a question that was asked by Charlie Crist, who is a congressman from Florida, regarding whether Mueller's team was unhappy with what Barr did.

[16:20:08] And he said, I wasn't aware of that. Well, now we know, he actually -- that was in early April. Now we know he had a letter in late March that stated exactly that, and then a call with Mueller the day after.

TAPPER: And not only that, but Barr said just at the end of the hearing, when he said it was "snitty," that he thought a staffer wrote it. So, he knew -- if he thought a staffer wrote it, he knew it was not just Mueller that was upset, that it was one of Mueller's staffers.

KUCINICH: Right.

TAPPER: You know, President Trump has long complained that he doesn't have in his view a loyal attorney general, he didn't have -- he wanted an Eric Holder, the way Holder defended Obama. He wanted a Bobby Kennedy, the way Kennedy defended JFK. This is in Trump's mind, not mine.

Does he have what he wants? Does he have the attorney general he wants now?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think it's important to note that whatever Bill Barr is saying out there, it's not because he has this relationship going back with the president. They did not know each other well before this.

I think more of what it has to do is what we saw in that memo that Barr wrote before he was ever attorney general or ever came close to being it, he cares about presidential powers and the powers of the executive branch. So it doesn't matter if it's a Donald Trump or whatever Republican or whoever's president, I think Bill Barr would have made this same argument. And I think it's tougher because of what the president did so when Barr's having to make arguments like, the president wasn't actually trying to fire the special counsel for saying he should be removed for a conflict of interest, a conflict of interest that the president's White House counsel said did not exist and other advisers called ridiculous and petty.

So I think what's striking that came out of today as you saw Barr navigate that hearing was his clear disdain at times for how the Mueller report was shaped. And that's what's interesting. Because they actually do have a personal relationship --

TAPPER: Thirty years, yes.

COLLINS: -- going back.

And that was alluded to when Barr said he got that second letter from Mueller, saying he wanted some of these summaries come out. And he said he finally called him and said, Bob, why didn't you just pick up the phone and call me?

So, it's striking to see the difference and what the length of distance that is growing between these two men, who have been pretty close.

TAPPER: And just in case you were wondering what former FBI Director James Comey thought about all of this --

PSAKI: I was wondering.

TAPPER: He wrote an op-ed in "The New York Times" called, how Trump co-opts leaders like Bill Barr. He said, quote: Accomplished people lacking inner strength can't resist the compromises necessary to survive Mr. Trump and that adds up to something they'll never recover from. It takes character like former Secretary of Defense Mattis to avoid the damage, because Mr. Trump eats your soul in small bites.

PSAKI: That's quite a visual.

I think the point he's making, which is interesting and we've seen repeated with some people who have been in the administration, is that people sort of get this Stockholm syndrome, where they want to please the one master, their one audience.

And we don't know what's going on in Attorney General Barr's head, as Kaitlan said, and you know, as was interesting to hear, they don't have a relationship, so why was he defending him with such an extent that, you know, he kind of -- Trump came out of this a bit unscathed. Barr, much more scathed.

TAPPER: Interesting.

Everyone, stick around.

Coming up next, the former U.S. attorney who was fired by President Trump joining me live to react to Barr's testimony. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:27:47] TAPPER: Congressional Democrats argued that Attorney General William Barr has been acting essentially as the president's personal defense attorney and not as the attorney general, as he repeatedly defends finding no obstruction and no conspiracy related to President Trump and those around him.

I want to bring in Preet Bharara. He was fired by President Trump as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.

Preet, Barr and Mueller are supposed to be friends that go back three decades. What does it say to you that Mueller put these concerns about the four-page Barr memo in writing, making this record that he expressed his concerns more than once?

PREET BHARARA, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: I think it's significant. We know that Bob Mueller doesn't talk much, at least not in the last couple of years. And I don't think he puts a lot of things on paper, either.

And lots of focuses who are familiar with how the bureau works and are floor with Bob Mueller personally, it's a pretty significant thing. You're not only doing it to convey a point stridently to someone who your concern is not going to do what you think is the best thing to do with respect to releasing these summaries, but you're putting it in writing in a way that it is available for posterity, not just one letter, there were two letters.

And both of those letters follow the conversation that's referenced in one of the letters in which it seems that it was a natural thing to have an easily presentable, non-secret set of summaries about volume on and volume two of the report, and there's no good reason that I've heard all day, aside from the hair splitting and the semantics and everything else, as to why Bill Barr would not just put out the summaries themselves that the team who worked on the entire report prepared.

TAPPER: And after Mueller wrote that letter, but before we found out about it, Bill Barr went before Congress and testified.

Take a listen to some -- an excerpt from that testimony before the House. Congressman Charlie Crist, a Democrat of Florida, had a question for him. Let's play that sound.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. CHARLIE CRIST (D-FL): Reports have emerged recently, general, that members of the special counsel's team are frustrated at some level with the limited information included in your March 24th letter, that it does not adequately or accurately, necessarily, portray the report's findings. Do you know what they're referencing with that?

BARR: No, I don't.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Is that perjury?

BHARARA: I'm not going to sit here on cable television and accuse the attorney general of perjury.

[16:30:00]