William Barr splits hairs on Trump’s attempted Saturday Night Massacre

The attorney general describes a distinction without a difference, and in doing so, offers a defense of Nixon's most damning moment.

AG Bill Barr's heated testimony on Wednesday included his latest defense of his handling of the Mueller report. CREDIT: ALEX WONG / GETTY
AG Bill Barr's heated testimony on Wednesday included his latest defense of his handling of the Mueller report. CREDIT: ALEX WONG / GETTY

In a testy hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, Attorney General William Barr offered his latest defense of his handling of concerns about President Donald Trump’s efforts to end special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.

Questioned by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) about Trump’s repeated efforts to fire Mueller, Barr argued that Trump’s activities wouldn’t amount to obstruction because Trump’s efforts would have resulted in another special counsel being appointed. Barr also claimed that Trump’s move to simply fire Mueller would also not have amounted to obstruction.

Feinstein’s back-and-forth centered on a section of Mueller’s report detailing how Trump instructed former White House counsel Don McGahn to have then-acting Attorney General Rod Rosenstein fire Mueller, a move that McGahn never followed through on.

When asked why Barr thought that this instruction didn’t amount to obstruction, Barr offered a confusing response. Barr focused on Trump’s apparent line of reasoning, pointing to Mueller’s supposed conflict of interest surrounding the investigation:

We felt that that episode, the government would not be able to establish obstruction. If you go back and if you look at the episode where the president gave McGahn an instruction, McGahn’s version of that is quite clear… which is that [Trump’s] instruction said, “Go to Rosenstein, raise the issue of conflict of interest, and Mueller has to go because of this conflict of interest.” So there’s no question that whatever instruction was given to McGahn, it had to do with Mueller’s conflict of interest.

Now, the president later said that what he meant was that the conflict of interest should be raised with Rosenstein, but that the decision should be left with Rosenstein. On the other end of the spectrum, it appears that McGahn felt it was more directive, and that the president was essentially saying, “Push Rosenstein to invoke a conflict of interest to push Mueller out.”…

Now, there’s something very different between firing a special counsel outright, which suggests ending the investigation, and having a special counsel removed for conflict, which suggests you’re going to have another special counsel.

It’s unclear what “conflict of interest” of Mueller’s Barr could be referring to, and Barr never clarified what it might be.


Barr also claimed that simply firing Mueller would not have risen to the level of obstruction, as it remains within the president’s constitutional right to fire a special counsel.

The idea that a president has the authority to fire a special counsel investigating him would go against precedent. President Richard Nixon in 1973 ordered his Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire independent special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Richardson and his deputy resigned before doing so, until the responsibility fell to the solicitor general Richard Bork. A court later ruled this so-called Saturday Night Massacre was illegal, and public opinion and congressional pressure to impeach the president grew critical.

Barr in his testimony added that the case is “interesting” due to a lack of “inherently malign” act on Trump’s part. “In terms of the request to ask McGahn to memorialize that fact, we do not think in this case that the government could show corrupt intent beyond a reasonable doubt,” Barr added.

Barr’s responses ate up most of Feinstein’s time during the hearing, but the senator did manage to question the attorney general about why he did not think Trump’s instruction to McGahn to change his statement amounted to instruction.


“You still have a situation where a president essentially tries to change the lawyer’s account in order to prevent further criticism of himself,” Feinstein said.

“Well, that’s not a crime,” Barr responded.

While Senate Republicans like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) spent much of their time discussing Hillary Clinton’s emails, Feinstein focused on the repeated instances of Trump’s interference in Mueller’s investigation, as detailed in the Mueller report. For instance, Feinstein also pointed out that the Mueller report highlighted how Trump tried to “influence witness testimony” by dangling pardons if witnesses “stayed on message.”

“In one case, the president sent messages through his personal lawyers to Paul Manafort that he would be taken care of and just ‘sit tight,'” Feinstein said, adding that Trump also used both “inducements” and “intimidation” to get former lawyer Michael Cohen to back the president.

While he offered new excuses for Trump’s behavior, Barr at least admitted that, in “general terms,” pressuring witnesses to lie is illegal.

Feinstein: “Does existing law prohibit efforts to get a witness to lie to say something the witness believes is false?

Barr: “Yes. Lie to the government, yes.”

Feinstein: “And what law is that?”

Barr: “The obstruction statutes.”

Feinstein: “So these things in effect constitute obstruction?”

Barr: “Well, you’re talking in general terms.”