William Barr Appears To Sail Through Confirmation Hearing
The confirmation hearing for President Trump's nominee for Attorney General appeared to go very well, making confirmation essentially a certainty.
William Barr, President Trump’s nominee to be the next Attorney General, appeared for his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday and it appears as if he is likely to sail through to nomination:
William P. Barr, President Trump’s nominee for attorney general, assured senators at his confirmation hearing on Tuesday that he would permit the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, to complete the Russia investigation and said he was determined to resist any pressure from Mr. Trump to use law enforcement for political purposes.
Mr. Barr, whose confirmation seems virtually assured, pointed to his age and background — he served as attorney general from 1991 to 1993 — as buffers to potential intrusions on the Justice Department’s traditional independence. He suggested he had no further political aspirations that might cloud his judgment, the way that future ambitions might give pause to a younger nominee, as well as the experience to fight political interference.
“I am in a position in life where I can provide the leadership necessary to protect the independence and reputation of the department,” Mr. Barr, 68, told the Senate Judiciary Committee, adding that he would not hesitate to resign if Mr. Trump pushed him to act improperly.
“I will not be bullied into doing anything I think is wrong — by anybody, whether it be editorial boards or Congress or the president,” Mr. Barr said. “I’m going to do what I think is right.”
He also pledged that he would refuse any order from Mr. Trump either to fire Mr. Mueller without good cause in violation of regulations or to rescind those rules first.
“It is in the best interest of everyone — the president, Congress and, most importantly, the American people — that this matter be resolved by allowing the special counsel to complete his work,” Mr. Barr said.
Mr. Barr’s first stint as attorney general came under President George Bush, who was known for his prudent and measured approach. If confirmed, Mr. Barr would serve under a president hardly known for self-restraint. Mr. Trump repeatedly excoriated Jeff Sessions, the former attorney general, for recusing himself from the Russia investigation, which Mr. Trump has called a “witch hunt,” and pushed him to open criminal investigations into political adversaries like Hillary Clinton.
Over hours of testimony, Mr. Barr displayed a grasp of policy and demonstrated his experience as a Washington hand and member of the Republican legal establishment. He is expected to be confirmed, both because Republicans control the Senate and because Democrats are deeply suspicious of Matthew G. Whitaker, the acting attorney general whom Mr. Trump installed after ousting Mr. Sessions in November.
“Mr. Barr is qualified by any reasonable standard,” Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina and the committee’s chairman, said after the hearing, adding that he saw no reason to doubt Mr. Barr would be confirmed. “And if he’s not qualified, I don’t know who they are ever going to pick.”
During his testimony, Mr. Barr described being asked whether he was interested in joining Mr. Trump’s defense team in June 2017 by a friend of the president’s. Although Mr. Barr agreed to meet with Mr. Trump — and told him, he said, that Mr. Mueller was both a personal friend and “a straight shooter who should be dealt with as such” — he declined to join his legal team.
“My wife and I were sort of looking forward to a bit of respite, and I didn’t want to stick my head into that meat grinder,” Mr. Barr said.
Asked by Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, why as a “rational person” he would want the job after seeing Mr. Trump’s “unrelenting criticism” of Mr. Sessions, Mr. Barr portrayed himself as an institutionalist.
“Because I love the department and all its components, including the F.B.I.,” Mr. Barr said. “I think they are critical institutions that are essential to preserving the rule of law, which is the heartbeat of this country.”
Not surprisingly, the majority of Barr’s hearing and the questioning that took place, especially by Committee Democrats, revolved around two issues.
The first was the ongoing investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into Russian interference in the election and potential collusion or obstruction of justice by the President. In that regard, many questions revolved around a memo that Barr circulated last year in which he appeared to question the idea of whether or not a sitting President could be charged with obstruction of justice. In response to those questions, Barr said that his analysis was limited to a single provision of the United States Code dealing with obstruction of justice that some had suggested Mueller might be proceeding under and that he did not research or mean to express an opinion on other theories of obstruction that Mueller might be proceeding under. He also stated that he does not believe that Mueller is conducting a “witch hunt” as the President is accusing him of doing, pledged that he would not interfere in the investigation, and stated that it was his intention to make the Special Counsel’s final report public, and made clear that he made no assurances to the President about how he would handle the investigation prior to his nomination.
The second issue that the hearing largely focused on was in some ways related to the first because it focused on how Barr viewed the relationship between the Justice Department and the President. In that regard, Barr stated in response to several questions that he viewed the Justice Department and the Attorney General in much the same way that it has traditionally been viewed since at least the Nixon Administration. Specifically, this is the view that while the Justice Department is under the President, the Department and the Attorney General are also independent of the White House in the sense that they are required to follow the law and required to remain a degree of independence from politics that other Cabinet officials are not. In that respect, Barr responded that he fully believed in this idea, and he pointed to his previous experience as Attorney General under President George H.W. Bush from 1991 to 1993 as evidence of that. Barr also stated that he would resist any order from the President to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller or otherwise interfere in his investigation even if the President ordered him to do so. While Barr stopped short of saying he’d resign if given such an order as an ultimatum, he did make note of the fact that he was at the point in his life and career that he “did not need” the job of Attorney General and that he largely agreed to return to the office because the President asked him to and because of what he described as a sense of duty to the nation. Whether you take him at his word or not, that appears to satisfy many of the Senators, including at least a handful on the Democratic side of the aisle.
Indeed, as Dana Milbank notes, Barr’s response to many of these questions ought to give the President cause for concern:
It was William P. Barr’s confirmation hearing. But it was Robert S. Mueller III’s affirmation hearing.
President Trump had nominated Barr to be his new attorney general to shield him from Mueller’s hoax of a rigged witch hunt. But Barr spent much of his seven-hour confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday lavishing praise on his future boss’s tormentor. And Republicans, for the most part, didn’t defend Trump — and occasionally joined in the Mueller veneration.
None of this guarantees that Mueller will be able to complete his work unhindered, or that Americans will ever know what work he did. Ominously, Barr, while promising “as much transparency as I can consistent with the law,” suggested he might try to bury the special counsel’s report by treating it as confidential and releasing only “certain information” himself.
Still, Mueller’s de facto affirmation hearing should be of concern to Trump as the president tries to discredit whatever the special prosecutor comes up with in the coming weeks or months. Just about everybody but Trump regards Mueller as an upstanding man doing honest work. Even Trump’s potential new attorney general.
Barr described declining an earlier request to join Trump’s legal defense team, saying, “I didn’t want to stick my head into that meat grinder.” He recalled telling Trump at the time that “Bob is a straight shooter and should be dealt with as such.”
Regarding his “good friend” of three decades, Barr vowed unequivocally: “On my watch, Bob will be allowed to finish his work.” If ordered to fire Mueller without cause, he said, “I would not carry out that instruction.”
Milbank goes on to note that this hearing which was conducted under the purview of incoming Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, who took over the position in January from Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, was much calmer than the confirmation proceedings for Justice Brett Kavanaugh just a few months ago. The hearing also included new members on the Republican side such as Joni Ernst and Marsha Blackburn, the first Republican women to sit on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Ostensibly, Ernst and Blackburn replace former Senator Orrin Hatch and Jeff Flake, who retired at the end of the year. In any case, Milbank’s insights are largely correct. For the most part, Barr came across as a strong and credible candidate and his responses to the important questions about the Mueller investigation and the Justice Department’s relationship to the President. If President Trump thought he was getting a stooge in selecting Barr, then Barr’s responses would seem to suggest that he miscalculated badly.
In any case, given yesterday’s hearing I expect that King will likely sail through the Judiciary Committee, possibly with the support of at least a handful of votes on the Democratic side of the dais, and that he will be easily confirmed by the Senate in a short period of time.