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.

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