Attorney general pick’s memo worries Dems
Barr called Mueller case ‘fatally misconceived’
WASHINGTON – William Barr’s 19page memorandum was striking enough when it emerged last month.
The attorney general under President George H.W. Bush had just been nominated to the same post in President Donald Trump’s administration when the document revealed his stinging critique of Russia special counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry into possible obstruction by Trump.
Not only did Barr object to any demand that “the president submit to interrogation” by Mueller’s team, but he asserted that the special counsel’s likely theory – that Trump sought to obstruct Mueller’s inquiry by firing FBI Director James Comey – was “fatally misconceived.”
Barr’s unsolicited counsel directed last June to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who was overseeing Mueller’s work, was not meant for public consumption. But it promises to be among the most incendiary flashpoints in the 77th attorney general’s bid to become the nation’s 85th chief law enforcement officer Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Last week, Barr’s work was thrust further into the spotlight when it was revealed that Rosenstein intended to leave the Justice Department after Barr’s anticipated confirmation.
Some Democrats, concerned that the nominee’s memo represented a threat to Mueller, called on Barr to recuse himself from the Russia inquiry as a condition of his confirmation. “I want him to completely disavow that theory of limits of the authority of the special counsel,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a committee member, told USA TODAY. “I want ironclad, specific limits and possibly even recusal.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the panel, asked Barr who requested the memo and to whom he provided it after seeing reports he gave it to Trump’s lawyers in addition to Rosenstein. She said that in 25 years on the committee, she had never seen a nominee write such an indepth legal memo for no reason.
Former Republican attorneys general said Barr has some explaining to do, signaling that the nominee could best calm the turbulent political waters by ensuring lawmakers that his private counsel was offered as just that – without the benefit of any inside knowledge of Mueller’s investigation.
“This is someone who has held the biggest jobs at the Justice Department,” former Attorney General Michael Mukasey told USA TODAY. “He was attorney general, deputy attorney general and directed the Office of Legal Counsel. He is a formidable lawyer who might best explain his work as any good lawyer would: that he will always follow the law.”
Barr will have to assess a multitude of weighty questions, from the boundaries of the president’s executive authority to the challenge of lifting sagging morale inside a sprawling department that for the past two years has been a punching bag for the president.
“I can’t think of a more potentially consequential time for any attorney general than the issues facing Justice today,” Mukasey said.
Trooping to and from private meetings with committee members last week, Barr declined public comment, though he made a few brief exceptions.
Asked about his relationship with Mueller, who served under Barr during the investigation in 1988 into the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, the former attorney general responded with one word: “Terrific.”
If he is confirmed, the first days and weeks of a Barr tenure are likely to bring a host of challenges, any one of which would probably define an entire term in any other administration.
As Barr prepares for Tuesday’s hearing, the president is weighing a test of executive power: whether to declare a national emergency that would allow him to bypass Congress and tap billions in federal money to build a long-promised wall along the U.S.-Mexican border – a possible path toward ending a shutdown of the federal government. The move is all but certain to prompt a legal challenge from Democrats that would require the Justice Department to argue the president’s case.
There are questions about whether Trump – as a sitting president – could be subject to indictment, given the criminal investigations that claimed some of his former top aides. The Justice Department has taken the position that such a prosecution would unconstitutionally interfere with any president’s capacity to run the government. This month, new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., declared the proposition an “open discussion.”
“I think you have to go back to the Nixon era to appreciate the issues awaiting a new attorney general,” said David Weinstein, who served for more than a decade as a federal prosecutor in Miami.
Attorney general nominee William Barr, right, met with lawmakers, including Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, on Wednesday.