Barr’s confirmation hearing will center on another name: Mueller
WASHINGTON — Two years of simmering tension involving 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 powder keg in the Mueller probe, which seeks to determine if 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 the most visceral piece 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 charge 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.
Three Democrats on the panel are viewed as potential 2020 presidential candidates, and the hearing could offer an early glimpse into those lawmakers’ lines of attack against the Trump administration.
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.
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 in 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.
One person close to Barr said he felt “very strongly” about the issue and wrote the memo hoping his advice may help officials who might be too busy to consider the issue thoroughly. Democrats have said his memo and past statements suggest a bias against the special counsel investigation.
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.
In a sign that even 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 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.”