with Brent D. Griffiths

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The People

BARR-PE DIEM: Sens. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) may have had their breakout moments of the campaign on Wednesday, but they came on the dais of a Senate hearing room rather than on the campaign trail. Both former prosecutors, the pair of Senate Democrats once again (see their exchanges with Brett Kavanaugh during his Supreme Court confirmation hearing) demonstrated their ability to perfectly grill a Trump administration official while live on cable news. 

While Attorney General Bill Barr “played down evidence that Trump sought to fire” Mueller during his testimony in “one of the most dramatic cases of potential obstruction of justice laid out by federal investigators”, per my colleague Carol D. Leonnig, Harris took a bit of a different approach. 

A former California attorney general, Harris’s sharp, concise and repeated inquiries seemed to trip up Barr over the simple question of whether President Trump or anyone in the White House “asked or suggested you open an investigation of anyone.”

  • “I’m trying to grapple with the word 'suggest' Barr offered at one point, before saying he didn’t know.
  • Harris went back for another pound of flesh when she asked Barr whether he had reviewed any of the underlying evidence in special counsel Bob Mueller's investigation before deciding it was not sufficient to charge Trump with obstruction of justice. He did not.
  • Viral moment: By the end of the day, Harris's team was fundraising off her performance and over 2 million people had watched C-SPAN's video on Twitter of her questioning. Harris's questioning of Kavanaugh reportedly holds the record for a C-SPAN Twitter video with over 7 million views.
  • After the hearing, Harris called on Barr to resign.
  • Even rival 2020 candidate Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) appeared impressed

PUSHBACK: On a White House conference call with surrogates after the hearing, a source on the call said that deputy press secretary Steve Groves claimed that "nobody laid a glove on Barr,” per the source's retelling. 

  • The White House also said on the call they viewed Barr's comment as a game-changer that Mueller stated three times that the DOJ's Office of Legal Counsel's opinion about the indictment of a sitting president did not impact his decision on whether the president obstructed justice. 
  • Another “nasty” woman: But Harris's line of questioning predictably drew the attention of the cable news fanatic sitting in the Oval Office. 
  • Trump said during an interview last night on Fox Business Network that Harris “was probably very nasty,” the second time he used the adjective “nasty” to describe Harris in less than a week.
  • As for the other 2020 candidates on the committee, Trump said, “they're just looking for political points.”

For her part, Klobuchar, a former county prosecutor in Minnesota’s largest county, listed  a number of the 10 episodes that Mueller considered in his investigation into potential obstruction of justice by the president. 

  • At each turn, Barr parried back with his legal reasoning, but his explanation for what the president meant by “flipping” when Trump tweeted and repeated publicly that it shouldn’t be allowed, or perhaps even illegal, struck some commentators as a stretch.
  • Klobuchar also went after the White House itself for sinking a bipartisan election security bill she is working on with Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.).
  • She later called on Barr to resign.

In a second round of questions, the Minnesota lawmaker also struck at the possibility that Trump’s behavior goes beyond just potential illegality. Once again, Barr struggled to respond:

  • Klobuchar: “Are the president’s actions detailed in this report consistent with his oath of office and the requirement in the Constitution that he ‘take care’ that the laws be faithfully executed?”
  • Barr: “Uh, well the evidence in the report is conflicting, and there is different evidence, and they don’t come to a determination into how they are coming down on it.”

The Takeaway: There is an argument that candidates like former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke -- or for that matter, ex-vice president Joe Biden, have an advantage in the 2020 race over Harris, Klobuchar and their other colleagues by virtue of not having a day job. For instance, Biden on Wednesday pledged to visit all of Iowa’s 99 counties, an intensive and time-consuming process that would be decidedly harder for a sitting senator.

  • But Harris and Klobuchar illustrated the power that comes from going toe-to-toe with top officials on live TV, the closest anyone will come to debating Trump himself until fall 2020.

CALLS ON BARR TO RESIGN: The other 2020 candidates were not silent, either. By Wednesday night, at least 14 of the 20 Democrats running for president said Barr needed to go, including Biden.

P.S. Iowans are still watching:

From a statehouse and politics reporter at the Des Moines Register:


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On The Hill

BARR POISED TO REFUSE A SECOND ROUND: Barr is highly unlikely to undergo Part Two on the House side of the Capitol today, where House Judiciary Committee lawmakers have summoned him. Barr balked Wednesday night after House Democrats passed rules allowing for extended questioning during their hearing, allowing committee lawyers along with members query the AG.

The standoff also escalates the possibility that Barr will be held in contempt:

  • “When push comes to shove, the administration cannot dictate the terms of our hearing in our hearing room,” Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), chairman of the committee, told reporters, according to our colleagues Rachael Bade, Mike DeBonis and Karoun Demirjian last night. Nadler hoped that sleeping on it will change Barr's mind, “I hope and expect that the attorney general will think overnight and will be there as well.”

  • House Democrats are mulling their options: Barr's behavior is sparking discussions of a contempt citation and even a threat to impeach him by some. 👀 

  • And: “Barr’s refusal to appear escalates a fight between President Trump and House Democrats over Congress’s oversight role. Trump has vowed to fight subpoenas from Democrats, sued to block compliance by accounting firms and banks, and instructed former and current aides to rebuff the repeated requests from Capitol Hill,” Rachael, Mike and Karoun report.

  • Republicans respond: “It’s a shame members of the House Judiciary Committee won’t get the opportunity to hear from [Barr] this Thursday, because Chairman Nadler chose to torpedo our hearing,” said Rep. Douglas A. Collins (Ga.), the panel’s top Republican.  

Global Power

WHITE HOUSE DANGLING MILITARY INTERVENTION: Seeking to keep the pressure on Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, Trump said in a phone interview last night on Fox Business Network the administration was doing “everything we can do, short of, you know, the ultimate.” 

  • Pressed for specifics on the options: “Well, some of them I don’t even like to mention to you because they’re pretty tough,” Trump replied. 
  • Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, however, spelled it out earlier in the day on the same network in an interview: “Military action is possible — if that’s what’s required, that’s what the United States will do.”
  • Meanwhile, special envoy for Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, told Efecto Cocuyo that many of the key military figures the U.S. has been trying to persuade to defect from Maduro have “turned off their cellphones." 

Opposition leader Juan Guaidó said in an interview that Venezuela is “close to achieving freedom,” despite the stalled uprising planned by him to oust Maduro. Guaidó admitted in an interview that he hadn't secured enough support yet: 

  • “We have to acknowledge that yesterday there were not enough (people), we have to insist that all the armed forces protest together,” Guaidó said. “We are not asking for a confrontation. We are not asking for a confrontation among brothers, it's the opposite. We just want them to be on the side of the people.”

So, why did Guaido's plan fall apart? “For weeks, the Venezuelan opposition had been working on a comprehensive blueprint to finally force Maduro from office,” our colleagues Karen DeYoung, Josh Dawsey and Paul Sonne report. But after Maduro possibly got wind of the efforts, Guaidó rushed into action:

  • “On Wednesday, as the United States and Russia traded barbs, the White House held an emergency meeting of top national security aides to mull next steps. 'Significant progress on defense matters' was made, a senior administration official said,” Karen, Josh and Paul report. But throughout the day the U.S. sent mixed messages on any possible military action.
  • What Trump is doing: “Trump has shown little willingness to plunge into Venezuela, according to current and former aides, although he has already imposed sanctions on Cuba — which the administration has accused of controlling the Venezuelan military — and threatened more.”

What about Bolton?: Trump has given national security adviser John Bolton wide latitude over Venezuela, but “as he has pushed for a more aggressive policy, Bolton has angered some within and outside the White House,” our colleagues write. A juicy and dramatic anecdote via Karen, Josh and Paul: 

Bolton’s staff clashed with Gen. Paul Selva, Dunford’s vice chairman, during a meeting to address the ongoing Venezuelan crisis, according to several officials with knowledge of the exchange. 

The soft-spoken Air Force general was giving an update last week on the Pentagon’s view and making the case against a risky escalation by the United States when Bolton aides, including Mauricio Claver-Carone, Western Hemisphere director at the National Security Council, repeatedly interrupted and asked for military options, according to the officials.

Selva, irritated at the interruptions and confrontational style rather than the substance of any disagreement, slammed his hand down on the table, his ring hitting the wood with a sharp crack. Bolton deputy Charles Kupperman, who was chairing the meeting, adjourned the session earlier than planned, said the officials, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

A senior administration official said Bolton’s staff was dissatisfied with Selva, who they felt had not presented sufficient military options for Venezuela as expected. Selva, according to people familiar with the interaction, believed the confrontational style of Bolton’s staff was out of line.

Outside the Beltway

MORE PROBLEMS, MORE MONEY: The White House sent Congress a $4.5 billion emergency request to address the “humanitarian and security crisis” at the southern border on Wednesday, my colleagues Erica Werner, Maria Sacchetti and Nick Miroff report.

This is on top of the whopping figure Trump has already asked for: 

  • “The money would be in addition to the more than $8 billion that President Trump asked for in his 2020 budget request to build border barriers, as well as some $6 billion in funding he sought as he declared a national emergency at the border earlier this year,” per Erica, Maria and Nick. 
  • “The situation becomes more dire each day,” White House acting budget director Russ Vought wrote in the request to congressional leaders. “The migration flow and the resulting humanitarian crisis is rapidly overwhelming the ability of the Federal Government to respond.”

The “humanitarian and security crisis” unfolding at the border has dramatically spiked under Trump. 

  • “The administration request describes what many lawmakers of both political parties have come to agree is a true crisis at the border, where arrivals of unaccompanied children and families from Central America have spiked dramatically. From October through March, DHS has apprehended more than 360,000 migrants illegally crossing the border — 187,000 more than the same period in the previous fiscal year, the administration says,” per my colleagues. 

A THIRD DEATH: Separately, BuzzFeed News's Hamed Aleaziz and Adolfo Flores report that yet another unaccompanied immigrant has died while in U.S. custody in Texas on Tuesday. He is the third child to die after being taken into Border Patrol custody. 

ONE MORE THING: “The Department of Homeland Security will start a DNA testing pilot program next week to help identify and prosecute individuals posing as families in an effort to target human smuggling, two department officials confirmed to CNN,” CNN's Priscilla Alvarez and Geneva Sanders report. 

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Roger Penske, President Trump. For @nytimes

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In the Media