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Attorney General’s Testimony Shows Why Democrats Are Treading Lightly on Impeachment

6 minute read

Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham opened Attorney General Barr’s testimony Wednesday with an attempt at levity. The first measure, he joked, would be to turn down the heat in the room.

Graham was talking about the actual temperature in the room, but he just as easily could have easily been talking about the tensions. They were everywhere: between Barr and the Democrats, between Barr and Special Counsel Robert Mueller and between Republicans and Democrats on the committee.

For Democrats, the hearings were a chance to press Barr about his handling of the Mueller report, which a newly released letter showed the special counsel disagreed with. For Republicans, it was an opportunity to air their criticisms of the president’s investigators and call for the Russia investigation to be put to bed.

The discrepancy between the two parties not only revealed the extent to which the Republican party will defend the commander in chief; it showed why Democratic leadership is treading so lightly on impeachment. To do it successfully and actually remove Trump from office, they would need at least 67 votes in the Senate. Wednesday’s hearing shows just how unlikely they are to get that.

Less than thirty minutes before Barr appeared on Capitol Hill, the House Judiciary Committee released the letter Mueller had sent to Barr March 25, in which he told him the summary of the report he had relayed to Congress “did not fully capture the context, nature and substance of this Office’s work and conclusions.” The Washington Post had first reported on the existence of the letter Tuesday evening, and House Democrats immediately demanded the Department of Justice produce it.

But Graham did not make mention of the letter beyond entering it into the official record. Less than eight minutes into his remarks, he began reflecting about alleged bias at the Department of Justice and the FBI during the 2016 election — something he has said he previously wanted to investigate. He read text messages from Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, two FBI agents that Trump has repeatedly criticized. “These are the people who concluded [Hillary] Clinton did not do anything wrong,” he argued.

This was more or less how the rest of the Republicans proceeded. Several GOP senators on the committee, such as Joni Ernst and Ben Sasse, diligently questioned Barr about the first volume of the Mueller report, which deals with Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. (This was the one instance where there seemed to be bipartisan consensus). But none of the 12 Republicans on the committee asked any questions about the second volume of the report, which details Mueller’s investigation into whether the President obstructed justice.

To be sure, the Republicans line of questioning yielded significant information, like the acknowledgement that the Department of Justice has opened a criminal investigation into leaks and that Barr is reviewing whether the dossier compiled by British spy Christopher Steele was part of Russia’s disinformation campaign. But their focus on other topics confirmed what Republicans have been indicating since they returned from their two-week recess, that they want to put this report behind them, or at least its second chapter. “I appreciate very much what Mr. Mueller did for the country. I have read most of the report. For me, it is over,” said Graham.

Democrats, by comparison, pushed Barr hard on all components of the report and his conduct. At some point, Republicans even argued they went too far, like when Sen. Mazie Hirono told him he was a liar and Graham told her she had slandered him. But theatrics aside, they too managed to glean some significant pieces of information from Barr. He told Sen. Kamala Harris he had not viewed the underlying evidence in Mueller’s report; he told Sen. Amy Klobuchar he was unaware if Mueller had accessed the President’s tax returns; he told Blumenthal he spoke with Mueller for approximately 10 to 15 minutes after the Special Counsel’s March 25 letter, and that his staff took notes on the conversation.

But just as important were Barr’s omissions. He was unable to tell Harris if anyone at the White House has suggested he open an investigation into anyone, telling her he was “grappling with the word ‘suggest.'” And he said he “could not recall” any non-substantive conversations with the White House about the Southern District of New York’s investigation into the President.

Lawmakers from both parties made no bones about the fact that their colleagues across the aisle were each using their position for political gain. Republican Sen. Thom Tillis, who was among repeatedly pushing to protect Mueller’s probe last year, said Democrats were ignoring facts to bolster themselves politically, which he called “despicable.”

But Democrats were just as incensed. “They don’t want to talk about Mueller, they don’t want to talk about the President, they don’t want to talk about Russian involvement,” said an exasperated Sen. Dick Durbin as he walked to votes. “They want to revisit Benghazi and Hillary Clinton emails and other things that bear no relevance to those issues.”

The differences in the line of questioning, however, illuminated just how much ground the Republicans were ceding when it came to the chance to question Barr about the investigation historians and legal experts deem the most consequential since Watergate.

At the end of the day, Democrats’ power in the Senate committee is essentially limited to their ability to throw tough questions at Barr. Since they are in the minority, they rely on Republicans to schedule hearings and take the lead on investigations. If they want Democratic action, they need to look to the lower chamber. Even though Barr declined to appear before the House committee on Thursday following a dispute over questioning procedure, the House Democrats, who are in the majority, have the means to enforce subpoenas both for his appearance and relevant documents.

Blumenthal, for instance, requested the notes Barr’s staffers had taken on his conversation with Mueller after the Special Counsel sent him the letter criticizing his summary to Congress. But Blumemthal’s most likely path to seeing those notes lies through House Democrats authorizing a subpoena for them — something he said he wanted them to do.

But the fact that Senate Democrats’ hands are tied is also why Wednesday’s testimony highlighted the logic behind House Democratic leadership’s pointed decision to avoid impeachment for now. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, along with her top deputies, have repeatedly resisted the call to open an impeachment inquiry, arguing that it could be politically disastrous without bipartisan support.

Wednesday’s testimony shows how difficult it will be to get that support.

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Write to Alana Abramson at Alana.Abramson@time.com