WASHINGTON – The Senate Judiciary Committee holds a confirmation hearing Tuesday on President Donald Trump’s nomination of William Barr to become attorney general.
Barr is a well-respected lawyer who previously served as attorney general for President George H.W. Bush from November 1991 to January 1993.
Because the attorney general oversees special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, Democrats said they will ask Barr about his independence from Trump and his support for the probe.
Barr, an advocate of broad executive power for the president, wrote a 19-page memo in June that criticized a potential obstruction-of-justice investigation against Trump. But he explained to the committee in his opening statement released Monday that Mueller should be allowed to complete his work and that the resulting report should be made public.
The hearing is being held in room 216 of the Hart Senate Office Building, which is the largest space for a Senate hearing. But the line of spectators was a fraction of those for confirmation hearings for Barr’s predecessor, Jeff Sessions, or for former FBI Director James Comey.
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Barr immediately sought to allay concerns that Mueller’s work could be cut short because of his nomination, strictly following the text of his opening statement first released Monday.
“I believe 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. The country needs a credible resolution of these issues. If confirmed, I will not permit partisan politics, personal interests, or any other improper consideration to interfere with this or any other investigation. I will follow the special counsel regulations scrupulously and in good faith, and on my watch, Bob will be allowed to complete his work.”
Barr pledged that the Justice Department would remain independent from any political influence and that Trump had not sought to extract any promises from him.
“We live in time when the country is deeply divided. In the current environment, the American people have to know that there are places in the government where the rule of law – not politics – holds sway, and where they will be treated fairly based solely on the facts and an even-handed application of the law. The Department of Justice must be such a place.”
Barr began his opening statement by noting that, if confirmed, it would be his second time to serving as attorney general.
“Twenty-seven years ago, at my confirmation hearing, I explained that the office of Attorney General is not like any other cabinet post; it is unique and has a critical role to play under our constitutional system,” he said.
“I said then: The Attorney General has a very special obligation, unique obligations. He holds in trust the fair and impartial administration of justice. It is the Attorney General’s responsibility to enforce the law evenhandedly and with integrity. The Attorney General must ensure that the administration of justice – the enforcement of the law – is above and away from politics.”
Former Utah senator Orrin Hatch introduced Barr, ticking through an long list of accomplishments in public office and the private sector.
He said Barr oversaw a number of important issues during his previous stint as attorney general, including the investigation into the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103.
But Hatch said that he believed Barr’s greatest accomplishment during that period was his handling of the takeover of a federal prison in Talladega, Ala.
“Some people would have sought political cover,” Hatch said. “Not Bill.” He described him as cool and calm during the 10-day standoff which ended when he ordered the FBI to storm the prison. The takeover was resolved without a shot being fired and no one was injured. “Bill’s decision-making… saved lives,” Hatch said.
Feinstein immediately staked out Democrats’ concern for Barr’s nomination, seizing on the nominee’ 19-page memorandum directed to the Justice Department earlier this year in which Barr believed that Mueller’s investigation into possible obstruction by Trump was “fatally misconceived.”
Feinstein said the memo represented the nominee’s “sweeping view” of executive authority and threatened to “undermine” Mueller’s inquiry.
Referring to the constant pressure exerted by Trump on DOJ during the past two years, Feinstein posed what she described as the central question facing the panel Tuesday: “Do you have that strength to be independent of the White House?”
Feinstein said she was also worried about Trump directing the Justice Department to investigate his political opponents, such as Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. Feinstein said the next attorney general must be independent.
“He must have the integrity, the strength and the fortitude to tell the president no, regardless of the consequences,” Feinstein said. “My question will be: Do you have that strength?”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said a top priority for her is to allow special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, to complete his probe. She said it is important for Barr to defend the independence of the Justice Department.
“Their job is to serve as the people’s lawyer, not the president’s lawyer,” Feinstein said of department workers.
Graham alluded to his fierce partisan confrontation last year during the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Graham was a vocal critic of Democrats during that period, after previously working in a more collegial way on bipartisan issues such as an immigration overhaul.
“I want us to do better and I’ll be as measured as possible,” Graham said. “The immigration Lindsey will show up. But the other guy is there, too, and I don’t like him any more than you do.”
Graham, who is chairing his first Judiciary hearing. said sentencing reform was an example of significant issues that the committee has addressed. An ethics overhaul, is another issue lawmakers could pursue, he said.
“This committee has the ability within it to do big things long overdue,” he said. “I look forward to solving as many problems as we can.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., gaveled in the meeting.
“Happy new year,” he said. “Let’s see how this goes.”