Questions hang over Barr confirmation
Democrats poised to grill attorney general pick over Mueller intentions
WASHINGTON — Two years of simmering tension between the White House, the Justice Department and Congress will culminate in Tuesday’s confirmation hearing of William Barr to be the next attorney general, where he is expected to resist Democrats’ demands for explicit promises about the fate of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into President Donald Trump.
As the Trump administration enters its third year, Barr is poised to inherit a political powder keg in the Mueller probe, which seeks to determine whether any Trump associates conspired with the Kremlin to interfere in the 2016 election, and whether the president tried to obstruct that investigation.
The fight over Mueller’s independence is a major aspect of the larger battle being waged between Democrats and Republicans over the independence of the Justice Department. Democrats accuse Trump of trying to bend the FBI to his will; Trump and his supporters claim the nation’s law enforcement agencies are conducting a “witch hunt” for political reasons.
Republicans have majority control of the Senate and the Judiciary Committee that will hold the hearing, which is scheduled to last two days, and so far there are no discernible cracks among the GOP that would suggest Barr’s nomination is in any jeopardy.
In private conversations with committee members last week, Barr offered assurances he has no plans to interfere with Mueller’s work.
“My intention will be to get that on the record before I’m satisfied,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the committee’s top Democrat. “It’s very important that Mueller be able to have no interference whatsoever.”
Barr, according to people preparing him for the hearing, is determined not to promise any specific actions regarding Mueller.
“He will promise to do the right thing, and he will promise to protect the integrity of the Justice Department,” said one person familiar with Barr’s preparations, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss candid insights.
Some Democrats have argued for Barr’s recusal from the Mueller probe because of his past public statements critical of some aspects of the investigation, and a private memo he sent to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein last June in which he called Mueller’s investigation into whether the president may have obstructed justice “fatally misconceived.” Barr also wrote that Mueller should not be allowed to subpoena the president about obstruction, saying an “interrogation” was not warranted.
Both Republicans and Democrats expect the memo will play a major role in the hearing.
Former Justice Department officials said it is unusual for a former attorney general — Barr served in the job during the George H.W. Bush administration in the early 1990s — to write a lengthy, unsolicited legal opinion to current Justice Department leadership.
People close to Barr said they do not expect him to renounce his sentiments. They instead stress that he did not have detailed internal information about Mueller’s work that he would likely receive if confirmed, and that information could change his view.
Democrats on the panel are preparing lengthy questions for Barr about the memo, and any related conversations, hoping to find out who in the administration spoke to Barr about it.
In a sign that Republicans are aware of the potential problems for Barr surrounding the memo, Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has also asked for an explanation.
Graham said last week that he does not take issue with the memo’s contention that Mueller should not investigate whether Trump’s firing in May 2017 of then-FBI director James Comey was obstruction of justice.
“He’s got some concerns about turning the firing of a political appointee into an obstruction of justice case, and I share those concerns,” Graham said. “But that’s his opinion as a private citizen. As attorney general, his job is to receive Mr. Mueller’s report.”
According to a letter to Barr from Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and reviewed by The Washington Post, the senator plans to question Barr about how his current situation may compare with the Watergate scandal when then-Attorney General Elliot Richardson resigned over a demand from the president to fire the special prosecutor in that case. At his confirmation hearing, Richardson had pledged not to interfere with the investigation.
The issue of recusals has become incendiary in the Trump administration. The president never forgave former Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing from the Russia probe. When Trump named Sessions’ former chief of staff, Matthew Whitaker, to serve as acting attorney general in November, the move created renewed questions about recusals because Whitaker had publicly criticized Mueller in 2017 and suggested an acting attorney general could effectively stop Mueller by starving his office of funding.
While questions about Mueller and Barr’s memo are expected to dominate the hearing, Democrats also plan to press him on his record on the use of torture on terrorism suspects, abortion, and his past statements indicating support for renewed investigations of Trump’s opponent in the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton.