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William Barr Didn't Commit Perjury, Rep. Johnson Says

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So did Attorney General William Barr commit a crime? That is the claim by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NANCY PELOSI: He lied to Congress. He lied to Congress. If - and anybody else did that, it would be considered a crime. Nobody is above the law - not the president of the United States and not the attorney general.

GREENE: What Pelosi is referring to there is the attorney general's appearance on Capitol Hill last month when he said he was unaware of any concerns from the special counsel's team about his summary of the Mueller report. We now know that Mueller had sent the attorney general a letter prior to that hearing expressing his frustration with what he saw as a lack of context in Barr's summary. Barr declined to appear at a second committee hearing yesterday to testify on Mueller's report. That would've been in the House Judiciary Committee, where Republican Congressman Mike Johnson of Louisiana is a member. And Congressman Johnson joins us this morning.

Welcome.

MIKE JOHNSON: Hey. Great to be with you, David.

GREENE: So is Pelosi right? Did the attorney general lie to Congress?

JOHNSON: Of course not. No. If you look to the very specific questions that are asked, they're very narrow. The exchange that everyone is referring to is a series of questions that were asked by my colleagues (ph) Charlie Crist out of Florida. And he asked the attorney general if the members of the Mueller team had expressed concern about certain things, and he answered that question very specifically. And then in the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Van Hollen asked a couple of questions very specifically that he answered very directly and very specifically.

Look. The - Attorney General Barr is a seasoned, you know, high official. He's been the attorney general twice. He's been in these high-profile hearings before. He's a very intelligent attorney in his own right. He answers the questions very directly. And as everyone always instructs witnesses in a hearing, you answer specifically; you answer clearly and concisely, and you leave it at that. There was no perjury here. And anyone who looks at these details will draw the same conclusion.

GREENE: So sadly, I don't have every word of transcripts in front of me. But what you are saying is that he might have known that he had a letter from the special counsel, but that he was really splitting hairs, and the way that the question was asked, he felt like he could get away with saying that he did not know of any concerns. I mean, the phrasing of the question gave him enough of an opening.

JOHNSON: I think so. I wouldn't characterize it the way you just did. I would say that he was answering very specific questions in a very, very specific manner. You know, when you're asked if members of the Mueller team have a problem with something, and you've answered that you're not certain; it's speculation, that's a very specific, honest answer under oath. And this is nowhere near lying on purpose (ph).

GREENE: But isn't it deliberately misleading in the least if you knew about a letter and decided you're not just going to come out and say like, yeah; there's a letter; the special counsel sent me a letter, and he's got some concerns with the way I summarized this?

JOHNSON: Look. Everyone can, I guess, quibble about his responses. And depending on what side someone is on in these issues, they'll draw different conclusions, I suppose. But, look. It's nowhere near perjury. He did his job. He did exactly right. And here's the point. I mean, the American people do deserve transparency, but this attorney general has been more than willing to give them that, you know?

He released the report to the public. He provided a less redacted version, within the bounds of the law, to members of Congress. And by the way, very few have gone to see that. And he's come before the Senate for hours and hours. And I just - I find it surprising that people would say that he's trying to be evasive. It's exactly the opposite of that.

GREENE: Although he decided not to appear in your committee - in the House Judiciary Committee. And I want to play - President Trump spoke about Barr's decision not to appear in an interview with Fox News.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOX NEWS BROADCAST)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It's not up to me. It's up to him. And they were going to treat him differently than they've treated other people. And of course, we've been treated differently to start off with. We've gone through so many investigations, everybody, and it's so ridiculous.

GREENE: Did you want him to appear? I mean, did you want to have your opportunity to ask him some questions?

JOHNSON: Absolutely. We all did. We were anxious to do it - on the Republican and Democrat side. But the problem is that what Chairman Nadler and the Democrats did here was totally unprecedented and inappropriate. They said, we need lawyers to question Mr. Barr. But everyone needs to recognize, 33 out of 41 of the members of our House Judiciary Committee are attorneys themselves, many of them seasoned litigators, and I'm one of them. I litigated cases, questioned witnesses for more than 20 years, and I know I'm up to the challenge and ready to ask him questions. And they're important ones, but this was...

GREENE: What do you want to ask him? What questions do you have for the attorney general if you get your chance? What do you want to ask him?

JOHNSON: Listen. All of the lingering questions, all of these controversies, much of what we're discussing today needs to be brought out. We should ask him directly some of the same things you've asked me and allow him to elaborate upon that. We don't need any question, any cloud over this. This is good news. There was no collusion. The attorney general's put it out there. And we need to discuss and maybe perhaps debate in our committee all the contours of what this is so that we can finally put it to bed for the American people.

GREENE: Republican Congressman Mike Johnson from Louisiana, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, where the attorney general was scheduled to appear this week. Congressman, thanks so much. We appreciate it.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

GREENE: I want to turn to NPR congressional reporter Kelsey Snell, who's been listening to that conversation.

Hi, Kelsey.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hi there.

GREENE: So what did you hear there?

SNELL: You know, I think it's really interesting that - he was drawing the distinction between whether or not the Justice Department is making a reasonable effort to follow through with the requests from Democrats. You know, this is a bit of a risk that Democrats are running - is they are - they're saying - Jerry Nadler, the Judiciary Committee chairman, has said there's been no meaningful attempt to accommodate the requests from Democrats by the Department of Justice.

And what we just heard the congressman lay out there is what he believes is a reasonable attempt. He said that - you know, that they have released a redacted version of the report and that Attorney General Barr appeared for an extended period of time before the Judiciary Committee. And it is entirely possible that people will believe that - you know, that that is a meaningful attempt to accommodate what Democrats want. And so as they proceed down this path of potentially issuing subpoenas or, you know, holding Barr in contempt, there is the possibility that people will think that that is an unreasonable step.

GREENE: Democrats, I mean, Nancy Pelosi among them, had suggested not rushing to judgment, taking their time, being deliberative about what to do and what steps to take next. Now she is in a position where she is calling the attorney general a liar, which seems to be increasing the tension here. Is this a war Democrats want?

SNELL: It's a war that many Democrats want, but it's not clear that it's a war that all Democrats want. And it's something that, you know, the campaign side of the party has been trying to figure out as they move closer and closer to 2020. They want to keep the moderates and the independents who voted for them in 2018 voting for them in 2020, and it's not entirely clear that those people want investigations and want impeachment. So this is going to be something the Democrats will have to tackle for some time to come.

GREENE: NPR congressional reporter Kelsey Snell for us this morning. Kelsey, thanks.

SNELL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.