Updated at 6:52 p.m. ET
The Justice Department’s Russia investigation may be over, but the political war over it — who conducted it, how and why — has enough new fuel to rage for several more months.
On Wednesday, Attorney General William Barr defended his handling of the final stages of the inquiry in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that underscored how much the focus of official Washington has shifted from Russian interference in the 2016 election to the lingering aftermath of the inquiry for Republicans and Democrats.
Here’s what you need to know.
There are now two Russia stories
The tracks of the Russia imbroglio, if they ever ran side by side, have now split off after reaching what railroaders call a wye.
Many Republicans, led on Wednesday by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., want the next phase to be about what they call the failures of President Barack Obama to prevent or investigate the 2016 interference, as well as the alleged overreach or missteps by authorities in his administration and since.
“You want to know what’s really going on here?” asked Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo. “You want to know why we’re all really sitting here today? … It’s because an unelected bureaucrat, an unelected official in this government who clearly has open disdain if not outright hatred for Trump voters … then tried to overturn the results of the democratic election. That’s what’s really going on here.”
Hawley was referring to Peter Strzok, the former FBI special agent who was fired after investigators found that he had criticized then-candidate Donald Trump in text messages during the 2016 campaign. Republicans fault what they called bias by Strzok and others for the Russia probe.
Many Democrats say the story is now about what they call evidence that President Trump obstructed justice in trying to frustrate the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller, even though the investigation didn’t establish a conspiracy between his campaign and the Russians who attacked the election.
“The president ordered the White House counsel to have special counsel Mueller fired,” said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del. “He fabricated evidence to cover it up, and whether or not you can 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.”
Democrats also zeroed in on Barr himself, arguing that he has shown he’s in the tank for Trump and not an attorney general who can act as an independent officer within the administration.
A few Democrats called on Barr to resign, and others on Wednesday questioned whether he can oversee more than a dozen cases that have spun out of Mueller’s core investigation.
The attorney general bristled at the idea that he might have to recuse himself from those matters and said he stood by his vow to protect the exercise of justice from inappropriate political influence.
But Barr didn’t respond definitively when Sen. Kamala Harris, a California Democrat who is running for president, asked him whether the White House has asked him to initiate any new investigations.
One of the findings of Mueller’s office was that Trump leaned on then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to open investigations on political opponents.
Barr ultimately didn’t deny that he had discussed some things with White House officials but said he hadn’t been asked to open any investigation.
Other Democrats seized on what they called discrepancies between testimony Barr has previously given Congress about his discussions with Mueller and what was revealed in a letter released by the Justice Department on Wednesday.
In the letter, Mueller wrote that he was concerned about the perceptions created by Barr’s initial characterization of the special counsel’s report in a summary he sent to Congress on March 24. Barr had previously testified that he didn’t know what Mueller thought about his messaging to the public and Congress.
Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, excoriated Barr and charged him with deliberately giving false information to Congress: “You knew you lied,” she said. “And now, we know.” Hirono concluded: “You should resign.”
Barr retains support of Republicans, White House
Graham, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s chairman, and others condemned the Democrats’ attacks.
“You have slandered this man every way you can slander,” Graham said.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, mocked the allegations that Barr had lied, given that he has publicly released much of Mueller’s report — the very report he was being charged with withholding or mischaracterizing — and likened the tactics of Democrats to those used against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
“You didn’t have to take this job,” Cruz said. “Yet you stepped forward and answered the call, yet again knowing full well that you would be subjected to slanderous treatment — the Kavanaugh treatment — that we have seen of senators impugning your integrity.”
The White House also came to Barr’s defense via press secretary Sarah Sanders, reaffirming that Barr is in no practical danger of losing his job.
“Democrats only disgrace and humiliate themselves with their baseless attacks on such a fine public servant,” Sanders wrote in a tweet.
The next milestones
The matters referred by the special counsel’s office to other Justice Department officials aren’t the only unbalanced parts of the Mueller equation.
Barr said on Wednesday that the department is running a number of investigations that also could pay off in the coming months with new revelations about the hows and wherefores of the Russia investigation.
The Justice Department’s inspector general, Michael Horowitz, is looking into investigators’ use of their surveillance powers in 2016, Barr said, especially those from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Republicans charge that the Justice Department and the FBI abused their authority in the case of at least one Trump aide, Carter Page, who was the subject of intelligence collection.
Barr said he is also looking into the other ways investigators conducted the initial phase of the 2016 investigation, including why the FBI apparently never briefed Trump himself about what it was learning about the contacts his aides were carrying on with Russians.
More broadly, Barr said he wants to know why the Obama administration didn’t do more to alert the public about the Russian election interference and take action to address it.
“It strikes me as a fairly anemic effort,” based on what is known today, Barr said.
Obama-era officials have since second-guessed some of their actions during the 2016 election, but the administration did publicly attribute the interference to Russia in a joint statement from the bosses of the intelligence community and the Department of Homeland Security.
The question about what more they might have done continues to be debated, as Barr’s testimony reinforced on Wednesday.
Additionally, the Justice Department has “multiple” criminal leak investigations underway, Barr said. This suggests that FBI special agents or others are inquiring about how so many aspects of the Russia investigation found their way into the press, and it also raises the possibility that people inside the bureau or the Justice Department could someday be charged.
One nearly immediate next question for Barr and Congress is what may happen if he skips the House Judiciary Committee hearing that’s scheduled for Thursday and is intended to follow Wednesday’s Senate session.
Barr said on Wednesday that he won’t show up. A Justice Department spokeswoman said Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., made “inappropriate” requests to change the ground rules.
He wanted not only members to question Barr but also professional staff attorneys for both the Democratic majority and Republican minority — and the possibility for a closed session to discuss redacted material from Mueller’s report.
No, the Justice Department said; Barr would not play ball.
The top Republican on the committee, Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., called that a “shame,” as his members would be denied a chance to question Barr for themselves: “Chairman Nadler chose to torpedo our hearing,” Collins said.
Nadler said that he’s going ahead with the hearing as planned and that he hopes Barr changes his mind and is in the witness chair when the hearing gets underway on Thursday morning.
If the chair is empty, Nadler suggested to reporters on Wednesday evening, the attorney general could risk subpoena and even a citation for contempt of Congress.
The Justice Department said Barr still intends to cooperate with Congress and be responsive to requests by members, but the prospect for a breakdown of the magnitude that Nadler suggests indicates that the political tone in Washington after Wednesday’s hearing in the Senate could get even colder.
And separate from the questions about Barr’s appearances are the ones about when — or if — members will hear directly from Mueller himself.