RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Attorney General William Barr was supposed to appear before the House Judiciary Committee for a second day of hearings about the Mueller report. He has decided, at the last minute, not to participate in what would have been a second day of contentious hearings. Democrats set up an empty chair for the attorney general, and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler set the tone, blasting Barr for failing to check President Trump's worst instincts.
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JERROLD NADLER: Ordinarily, at this point, I'd introduce the witness. But instead, we will conclude these proceedings. I just want to say, we didn't choose not to have Mr. Barr come - he chose. We will - we cannot permit him or anybody in the administration to dictate the manner in which we function.
MARTIN: Earlier this morning, I spoke with Alberto Gonzales, who served as attorney general under President George W. Bush. He was supportive of Barr's nomination to be attorney general. And I started by asking him what he made of Barr's testimony yesterday and his overall handling of the Mueller report.
ALBERTO GONZALES: Well, it was certainly contentious. I think that one thing is pretty clear, you know, in Bill Barr's mind - and I agree with this - once Bob Mueller provides a report, Bob Mueller's work is done. And it really is up to the attorney general, who supervises the work of the special counsel. It's up to the attorney general to decide what happens after that.
Now, we can have a disagreement about whether or not what Bill Barr did and how he handled it was appropriate or not. But certainly, I have no objections or qualms about - it's the attorney general's responsibility at that point, as soon as the special counsel's work is done.
Now, I - the letter from Bob Mueller, who was the FBI director when I was the attorney general...
GONZALES: I know...
MARTIN: We should say this is the letter Mueller wrote to Barr, complaining about how he was characterizing the four-page summary.
GONZALES: On the one hand, it's extraordinary because that's not typically, I think, what someone like Bob Mueller would do. But, again, I can somewhat understand the frustration by the attorney general in that it is his responsibility - as soon as Bob Mueller releases a report, it's now in the hands of the attorney general. And so, you know, I know Bob Mueller well. And I, obviously - I think he was very frustrated. He must have been very frustrated.
MARTIN: But doesn't that suggest - and doesn't that suggest to you that he was highly concerned about the repercussions of the way that the attorney general was handling the report? - giving his own summary of the report when Bob Mueller pointed out, we've done that work already, Attorney General. We've made the executive summaries, and you can release them right now.
GONZALES: Yes. Obviously, Bob Mueller was concerned about the characterization and, as the letter indicates, about how it was presented to the public, causing confusion - no question about it. Yeah. The way this works, however, is that at the end of the day, the senior - the person in charge makes the ultimate decision about how to move forward. And, you know...
GONZALES: Bob Mueller had the opportunity to do - to affect how this would be presented to the American people and chose not to do that...
MARTIN: You mean by not...
GONZALES: ...Which in my judgment, was the right thing to do.
MARTIN: ...By not drawing an obstruction charge. But let me ask. Was the attorney general obligated? I mean, I understand it is a regular practice, but there was nothing that required that he draw a conclusion about obstruction, was there?
GONZALES: No, absolutely not.
MARTIN: So he could have just accepted the Mueller report and passed it on to Congress to do with it what they will. Let me also ask you. Since he drew a conclusion different than Mueller - that there was no evidence to bring obstruction charges, he viewed - wouldn't you have expected him to review the underlying evidence, which he admitted he did not do yesterday?
GONZALES: Yes. I think on something this crucial - I think to reach a different - he reached a conclusion. Bob Mueller, in his report, did not reach a conclusion on obstruction. So I think you're mischaracterizing exactly what Bob Mueller did. He reached no conclusion on obstruction, ultimately. And so I think, with respect to reaching a definitive conclusion on whether or not there was obstruction...
GONZALES: I might have expected the attorney general or the deputy attorney general or both to review the underlying information. And so that was a little bit surprising.
MARTIN: Do you still have faith in William Barr as the attorney general of the United States?
GONZALES: I have questions about the way that Bill Barr has handled this. But let me just say this. There is information that he has that I don't have and that none of us has. And so if I had the same kind of information, perhaps I might have made the same decision. So as a former attorney general, I know how difficult these decisions are. And I don't want to second-guess the attorney general without knowing much more information about what has happened here. It seems that every time there's a hearing or with passage of time, we learn more and more information about the interaction between the work of the special counsel...
GONZALES: ...And the interaction of the special counsel and the Department of Justice. And so I want to get more information before I make any kind of conclusion about the performance...
GONZALES: ...And the confidence that I might or might not have in Bill Barr.
MARTIN: Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, thank you for your time.
GONZALES: Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: We've got NPR's Tim Mak in the studio, who was listening in.
What did you hear in there, Tim, that struck you?
TIM MAK, BYLINE: You know, what's interesting - Mr. Gonzales, as the former attorney general, is no stranger to controversy himself, you know? As you recall during the Bush administration, there were various controversies over so-called enhanced interrogation techniques for the firing of U.S. attorneys. So it was interesting for me to hear him say that he did have questions about the way that the attorney general - Attorney General Barr has handled this situation so far. He also seemed to say that these decisions about how to deal with Mueller's work product - once Bob Mueller finished his report, that's up to other folks and senior officials at Justice. That seems to be a line that a lot of Republicans are using, saying, hey - you know, Bob Mueller, thank you for your work. But we're done here.
MARTIN: NPR Congress reporter and national security reporter Tim Mak. Thanks for your time.
MAK: Thanks a lot.
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