Return to Transcripts main page

CNN NEWSROOM

Attorney General Barr Set to Testify Before Senate Judiciary Committee; Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) Interviewed About Barr's Hearing Before the Senate Judiciary Committee; Mueller Objected to Barr's Principal Conclusions in Summary. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired May 1, 2019 - 09:00   ET

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


[09:00:26] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning and welcome to CNN's special live coverage of William Barr, the attorney general of the United States, under oath before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

It's Barr's first congressional appearance since he released most of the Mueller report and overnight the tensions, the suspicions, the resentments that already surrounded Barr's handling of the special counsel probe and conclusions, they exploded.

CNN has confirmed that Mueller himself was displeased by the attorney general's initial four-page letter to Congress on March 24th. In a letter to Barr dated March 27th and first revealed by the "Washington Post," Mueller said that Barr's summary, and I'm quoting now, "did not fully capture the context, nature and substance of this office's work and conclusions." He went on, and I'm quoting again, "There is now public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation."

As you may know, Barr has steadfastly highlighted Mueller's findings that the president's campaign did not conspire or coordinate with Russians who meddled in the election. And where Mueller cited at least 10 examples of apparent presidential obstruction of his investigation, Barr decided the evidence simply wouldn't support a criminal charge.

In early April Barr appeared before House and Senate Appropriations panels, where all of this came up. I want you to hear two exchanges, very important exchanges. Keep in mind at this point the Mueller report itself was still under wraps.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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

WILLIAM BARR, ATTORNEY GENERAL: I don't know whether Bob Mueller supported my conclusion.

REP. CHARLIE CRIST (R-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)

BLITZER: Today's hearing starts a little less than one hour from now right at the top of the hour, which is also the deadline, by the way, set by the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Jerry Nadler, for Barr to produce Mueller's letter in full.

Our team of experts is with us, so let's start with our justice correspondent, Laura Jarrett, who is with me right now.

This is a pretty dramatic development that's occurred overnight.

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: Absolutely, Wolf. And I think the stakes have been considerably raised for this hearing for Barr today given the riff that we now know between these two longtime friends, longtime colleagues, and in particular it starts with this letter and it comes out just a few days after Barr released that four- page summary and essentially Mueller's complaint was, you didn't provide the full context, you didn't provide enough of the nuance that I provided in my 448-page report.

It's then followed up by a conversation the next day. Barr calls Mueller and essentially I'm told he said, we're friends, we've been friends a long time, let's hash this out, let's talk this through. I'm told it was a cordial conversation, it was polite, but it was clear that there was disagreement on some fundamental issues here and Mueller felt like his full report was not getting adequate coverage because of that four-page summary that we had seen just days before.

Barr felt like he didn't want it to come out in piecemeal fashion. He wanted to get the full report out and so he pushed them to continue on the redactions.

BLITZER: I understand the Justice Department has released the advanced text of Barr's opening statement.

JARRETT: They have and it's interesting. It mostly sort of lays out a timeline of events instead of providing any new color on the more explosive news that we saw overnight, but I want to read to you just a piece of this because it I think sheds light on what Barr is subliminally saying to Mueller here. He says, quote, "The special counsel's report demonstrates that there are many subsidiary considerations informing that prosecutorial judgment," that prosecutorial judgment, meaning the decision about guilt or innocence.

And he goes on to say, "Including whether particular legal theories would extend to the facts of the case and whether the evidence is sufficient to prove one way or another element of a crime. But at the end of the day, the federal prosecutor must decide yes or no. That is what I sought to address in my March 24th letter."

So what he's saying here is essentially Mueller didn't do his job so I did the job.

BLITZER: That's a very dramatic development. Let's get some analysis right away, Gloria Borger, in this letter that Mueller wrote to Barr, he said that the conclusions as explained in that initial four-page document that Barr released did not fully capture the context, nature and substance of his work, of Mueller's work.

[09:05:12] Eventually we did get a redacted version of the 400 plus page document.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: And, you know, that may have been the thing that inspired them to redact less rather than redact more because Mueller was saying, you know, you have to -- you have to bring this out to the American public. But it's kind of stunning for me that Mueller who is a diffident guy, doesn't get out there on a soap box at all ever, felt the need to put this in writing, put it in writing, not just have that phone call.

But put this in writing to the attorney general with whom he is an old friend, and say, look, you guys made a big mistake here because you mischaracterized our work and that is not the way the special counsel is supposed to work. And it was very clear that Mueller was quite upset about it.

BLITZER: You know, it's a very significant moment right now and the tension is going to be very apparent as soon as he starts answering questions from the Democratic senators.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Here's the thing, Bill Barr can make the argument rightly so that it's the attorney general's decision whether to prosecute.

BORGER: Yes.

SCIUTTO: He is the prosecutor, he can make that decision. Mueller is not saying that. Mueller is saying that what you did is you mischaracterized our findings, our evidence as presented. And that's what Bill Barr is going to have to answer for today because both in the four-page summary and later -- remember that press conference that Bill Barr gave before releasing the full report, it wasn't just about getting the report out there, he very clearly was making an argument in the president's favor as to the findings of that report and what Bob Mueller is saying, that does not accurately reflect what we put together in this report.

You have the right to make the decision on whether to prosecute, but you did not tell the American people in the correct way, in the most full some way what our findings were, and Barr has to answer that and I think ultimately Bob Mueller has to be willing to speak in public about this and answer questions about this.

And I wonder if Bill Mueller didn't see this coming. He's a creature of Washington. He's been around a few decades. He know that Bill Barr is sitting in a political position appointed by this president. He had to know that this was going to be colored in a political kind of sphere to some degree. So Bob Mueller, if he wants to clarify for the American people, he's got to come and speak before the American people.

BORGER: Well, and he also knew how strongly Barr believes in executive authority and executive power and he's written -- he wrote about this in his June 2018 memo. He's been writing about it for decades. And so obviously Mueller knew that it was probable or likely that Barr would come down on the side of the president, which leads me to ask, why did Barr leave it undecided?

BLITZER: Yes, hold on for one moment. I want to go to Capitol Hill. Manu Raju is up there.

Set the stage for us, Manu. First of all, what are you learning about the Democrats' approach this morning, the Republicans in the Senate Judiciary Committee, Lindsey Graham, the Republican is the chairman. Dianne Feinstein is the ranking member, the Democrat. What are you learning about what the Democrats are planning on doing?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Democrats are going to go pretty hard at the attorney general's credibility. They will question exactly why he took the steps that he did and also try to argue that he should not have -- why -- push him on his decision not to prosecute the president over obstruction of justice. They want to push him further on that, but they're going to try to show the differences between what was in the Mueller report versus what the attorney general said publicly and ask him, of course, about that phone call that occurred between Mueller and Barr, as well as that letter.

We'll see how much the attorney general ultimately reveals. While that's going on the Senate Judiciary Committee, the House Judiciary Committee across the capitol will be carrying on its own debate about exactly what to do about a hearing tomorrow, Thursday, when they want Bill Barr to appear. Barr threatening of course not to appear because of the format of that hearing. Expect a lot of criticisms of Bill Barr there, potential discussions about subpoenas to bring him in there. That's the chamber of course that actually has subpoena power.

And Republicans are going to take a bit of a different approach. If we can -- if we look at what Lindsey Graham told our colleague Lauren Fox this morning, the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman said that he did have a conversation last night with the Justice Department in the wake of these reports and he said that what Bob Mueller was actually saying to Bill Barr was not anything about what Barr said, it wasn't the concern about what Barr said, but how the media covered what happened.

According to Lindsey Graham, he said his complaint was not really anything that Barr has done, just the way it was being reported. So expect that to be the argument from Republicans here in this hearing, Wolf. We'll see what Barr actually says here in just a matter of minutes -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Manu, I know we're going to get back to you.

[09:10:02] Manu is up on the Hill waiting for this hearing to start right at the top of the hour.

Susan Hennessey, you wanted to make a point about this explosive potential for this dispute that has developed.

SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY AND LEGAL ANALYST: So one thing that's important to keep in mind is that the old independent counsel has an impeachment provision, an impeachment referral provision whereby an independent prosecutor could assemble materials for Congress. The new special counsel regulations don't have that provision. Seeing the actual Mueller report it's quite clear that Mueller believed he was preparing something that was in line with that independent counsel impeachment referral provisions, and so to sort of suggest that Barr was just confused here, that he didn't understand what was going on, you know, I think that's giving the attorney general a little bit too much credit in this case.

It's clear from anybody who read Mueller's report, certainly anyone who had heard Mueller's concerns, that what he was concerned about was the misrepresentation about what Mueller had done, about what he intended and so for Senator Graham or others to suggest that this is just a matter of the media coverage mischaracterizing, you know, it's an active and intentional mischaracterization.

BLITZER: Let me get Jeffrey Toobin into this conversation as well.

Jeffrey, let me read a couple of sentences specifically to give some context. This is from the "Washington Post" which had some quotes from the Mueller letter to Barr. "The summary letter the department sent to Congress and released to the public late in the afternoon on March 24 did not fully capture the context, nature and substance of this office's work and conclusions."

That we've been reading. Here is the next sentence, though, "There is now public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation. This threatens to undermine a central purpose for which the department appointed the special counsel to assure full public confidence in the outcome of the investigations." How do you see it?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Well, what happened here is, I think, an example of no good deed goes unpunished. What the Mueller office said was, we can't say that there is a prosecutorial -- that we have the right to prosecute the president. And it would be unfair to say there is a prosecutorial case if there is no chance for the president to respond, as he could in a trial. So they left the issue open for Congress to deal with.

Barr took that deference, took that opportunity that the president -- that Mueller gave to the president to respond to shoot down all his findings, to say that there was no case here. And that's the core of the problem is that Mueller did not equivocate, did not say I can't make up my mind. What he did was he deferred and Barr took that as an opportunity to say there's no case here. That's why Mueller is so upset because he's not -- his findings were deeply and totally mischaracterized by Barr.

BLITZER: Important point.

Mark Mazzetti of the "New York Times," our CNN national security analyst, you've been doing a lot of reporting on this. You reported it last night as well. How angry do you sense Mueller right be right now?

MARK MAZZETTI, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, a couple of weeks ago we reported that there was frustration and anger inside the Mueller team about that four-page letter. The fact that this team together with Mueller's name on it took this step to send it to the attorney general is significant, it is a sign. Whatever the language is it's a sign of the anger, the sign that the feeling that there was real mischaracterization.

And, you know, Robert Mueller may have thought he could submit the report, go away, be done with this. But the fact that that letter happened over that weekend and then Mueller took the step to say, this distorts the conclusions of our report, it's a sure thing that it isn't going away, we're probably going to eventually hear from Robert Mueller and this simmering tension between DOJ and the special counsel's office is going to continue.

I wanted to make one other point on. Those two clips you showed at the beginning of Barr's testimony and I think there is a difference between the two. One of them is focused on whether Mueller disagreed with Barr's conclusion about obstruction of justice and he says, I don't know. And I think that's still an open question about whether Mueller disagreed. But the second one seems to be more on point that did he know about frustration, anger about his letter inside the team and he said, I don't know.

SCIUTTO: Yes.

MAZZETTI: But clearly he did because he had the Mueller letter. So that may be a potentially more significant issue for them to press --

SCIUTTO: Yes.

BLITZER: And he not only had the Mueller letter, Laura Coates, but he also had a phone conversation that followed the Mueller letter supposedly about a 15-minute conversation in which they discussed Mueller's frustration.

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: And of course that makes the amnesia go from improbable to absolutely absurd at that point in time. You had a phone call and a letter. And make no mistake about it, lawyers don't pick up the phone when a pen or a computer is available unless they do not want to have a record of what followed from there.

[09:15:00] Mueller took the time to actually write something out in a memo, knowing full well it was not going to be released. And when it did, it would show unequivocally that he was not the inept person that Barr's four-page letter allowed us all to believe. Because remember, he had one job, yield and reach a conclusion. He

didn't do that according to Barr in a four-page summation or distillation letter. And so now what Mueller appears to look like is somebody who was once called inept, which is part of an opinion campaign by Donald Trump by the way to show that the entire investigation should be investigated because of ineptitude.

And number two, he is now on his heels trying to recover and say, hold on, if I do testify, I'm defending my honor and integrity as opposed to what American people care about, which is the substance of the investigation. And so -- and two, with one stone, two birds were actually knocked over.

BLITZER: All right, everybody, stand by. There's a lot developing right now. We're just one hour away, less than one hour away right now. At the top of the hour, the Attorney General of the United States, William Barr will be facing tough questions from Senate Judiciary Committee members, specifically the Democrats on that committee.

I will speak with a top Democrat on the committee right after this.

[09:20:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're now about 40 minutes away from the Attorney General of the United States William Barr's appearance in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and the stakes have gotten higher. We now know the special counsel Robert Mueller did, in fact, object to Barr's four-page letter on the 448-page report.

So how will Democrats take this on today during this upcoming hearing? Joining us now, Senator and Democratic whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, he's a leader in the U.S. Senate, and he's also a leader on the Judiciary Committee as well. Senator, thanks so much for joining us.

Let's get right to the substance of this huge uproar that has developed overnight. On April 10th, your Democratic colleague, Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland asked Barr under oath this question: did Bob Mueller support your conclusion? Barr's answer was, and I'm quoting him now, "I don't know."

We now know Mueller stated his concerns to Barr on March 27th, a letter. Did Barr lie to Congress?

SEN. DICK DURBIN (D-IL): And if you go the day before on April the 9th, Congressman Chris of Florida at a House Appropriations meeting asked virtually the same question and, again, Attorney General Barr said, no, he wasn't aware of any concerns by the Mueller investigative team about his earlier statement.

Let's follow it from start to finish, Wolf. This started off as a matter of grave national importance, Russian interference in a presidential campaign. Then we had a recusal of a sitting Attorney General Jeff Sessions because of his involvement in the same campaign and undisclosed contacts with the Russians. Third, we appointed a special counsel Bob Mueller, we gave him $25

million in two years, and said find out what happened here. Before his report was public for the American people to reach their own conclusions, in steps the new Attorney General Bill Barr and whitewashes the report.

Comes to a conclusion that there's no collusion, there's no conspiracy, there's no obstruction of justice. Now, we know that Bob Mueller made it clear at the beginning that his conclusions, Barr's conclusions, did not reflect the reality of that report.

BLITZER: So do you believe he lied? Did Barr lie in front of Congress which, of course, would be a perjury, that's illegal.

DURBIN: Well, I'm not going to say a crime was committed, but he clearly misled both Congressman Chris and Senator Van Hollen. He knew sitting there, he'd received a letter from Bob Mueller saying that his report, his letter of March 24th to the American people failed to provide the context and the substance of the report that Mueller had worked on for two years.

BLITZER: Do you believe he should resign or be impeached?

DURBIN: Well, I will say this, I'm gravely concerned that the 14 remaining referrals, criminal referrals for investigation related to this same matter are really under the supervision and control of Attorney General Barr. He has virtually disqualified himself to be the kind of person we expect to stand back and make sure that justice is served when it comes to these 14 referrals.

BLITZER: He will be sitting in front of your committee in a few moments. What will you ask him?

DURBIN: Well, clearly, I'm going to go into this matter because it gets down to the bottom line here. Bill Barr has told us not just this time when he came after the position of Attorney General, but previously that Attorney Generals should not show any political favoritism.

He did exactly that with the March 24th letter. He did exactly that with the press conference before the release of this report. It is inconsistent with his promise to the American people and to the Judiciary Committee the conduct that followed.

BLITZER: How does Mueller's letter that we now know existed? I anticipate we'll be getting the full text of it fairly soon. How does that letter change your approach to today's hearing?

DURBIN: Well, I'll tell you, as of last night and the disclosure of that letter, it was no longer speculation or conjecture as to what Mueller agreed -- whether Mueller agreed with Barr's -- his own version of the report. We now know that he didn't and he put it in writing. As one of your earlier people said on your show, when an attorney puts something in writing, it's pretty significant.

BLITZER: If you could ask Mueller, you know, anything you want right now, and I don't even know if he's going to agree at some point to testify before your committee or another House or a Senate Committee, what would you ask him?

DURBIN: Well, I'd ask him this, Attorney General Barr says that the White House fully cooperated with the Mueller investigation. The Mueller report says the president refused to be interviewed. Did the White House and the president fully cooperate with the Mueller investigation?

That would be a question I'd ask Mueller. That's number one. Number two, did you believe that it was up to Attorney General Barr to reach a conclusion as to whether the president obstructed justice?

[09:25:00] Is that what you were asking for in your findings, and as a result of this investigation? I doubt that his answer would be in the affirmative.

BLITZER: I want you to listen to your Republican colleague Mike Lee of Utah. He sits on the Judiciary Committee. Listen to what he said last night.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. MIKE LEE (R-UT): The fact is that this has been a very thorough investigation, it took them two years, they concluded that there was no collusion. And so now they're losing their minds because they've been relying on the Mueller report as this sort of holy grail from whence was going to come all of these blessings, and they didn't have that and they're frustrated.

They want to take it out on Barr. We can't let them do that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: And so what's your message to Senator Lee and others, other Republicans, others supporting the president who feel the Democrats right now are simply grandstanding?

DURBIN: Mike Lee is my friend, but I disagree with him. I respect Bob Mueller and I said from the beginning, I will stand by his findings whether I agree with them or not because I believe he is an honest man with integrity, a professional prosecutor.

I don't agree with everything that he concluded in his report, but I believe it's very clear that what Bill Barr did with those findings was to twist them politically to the benefit of the president. I don't believe that is his role as Attorney General, I don't believe he served the cause of justice.

BLITZER: The chairman of your committee we're going to be hearing from him fairly soon right at the top of the hour, Lindsey Graham, he told our Manu Raju on Monday, he said that the Democrats in his words are political hacks in their pursuit of more information. What's your reaction to that?

DURBIN: You know, it's amazing to me to listen to my Republican colleagues. Think back just for a moment, all of the hearings on Benghazi and Hillary Clinton's e-mails, millions and millions of dollars, days and days of hearings, all the investigations over and over, repeating themselves.

And now they're saying that we have gone too far to ask for basic information from the Trump administration about something as serious as whether the Russians undermined our election.

BLITZER: Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, thanks as usual for joining us.

DURBIN: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, this morning, the president has been unleashing on Twitter once again, tweeting or re-tweeting more than -- get this, 60 times, 60, 6-0 times in just a few hours. But is he responding to Robert Mueller's letter objecting to the Attorney General's summary of this report? Stick around, we'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[09:30:00]