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What to Watch for at the William Barr Hearing

Can he win over Democrats without offending Donald Trump?
January 14, 2019
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Attorney general nominee William Barr. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

President Trump’s attorney general nominee William Barr faces a grueling confirmation hearing Tuesday morning before the Senate Judiciary Committee. A respected lawyer who previously served as attorney general to  George H.W. Bush in the early ‘90s, Barr is nevertheless sure to be asked by committee Democrats about how he would oversee special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into potential collusion between the 2016 Trump campaign and Russia. Here’s what you ought to watch for during Barr’s testimony.

1. Will Democrats nail Barr on his Mueller memo?

Barr sent an unsolicited memo to top officials at the Justice Department this summer in which he expressed his skepticism of the notion that President Trump ought to be charged with obstruction of justice for actions including his firing of former FBI director James Comey.

“It appears Mueller’s team is investigating a possible case of ‘obstruction’ by the President predicated substantially on his expression of hope that Comey could eventually ‘let… go’ of its investigation of Flynn and his action in firing Comey,” Barr wrote. “As I understand it, his theory is premised on a novel and legally insupportable reading of the law. Moreover, in my view, if credited by the Department, it would have grave consequences far beyond the immediate confines of this case and would do lasting damage to the Presidency and to the administration of law within the Executive branch.” As a former Justice official, there was nothing untoward in Barr’s decision to write this memo. As Andy McCarthy put it at National Review, “Barr wrote not as an advocate representing someone in the investigation, but as a former high-ranking government official concerned about the institutions of the executive branch, particularly the Justice Department.” But Democrats are sure to grill Barr on whether the positions staked out in the memo should disqualify him from overseeing Mueller’s investigation. Barr’s opening remarks for tomorrow’s testimony were released publicly Monday; he plans to tell the committee that “I will not permit partisan politics, personal interests, or any other improper consideration to interfere with this or any other investigation.”

2. Can Barr keep from upsetting Trump?

It is, of course, right and proper that Barr should pledge not to allow personal interests to interfere with Mueller’s work. But one person who might disagree is the president himself. For much of 2018, Trump made no secret of his displeasure with Jeff Sessions for his decision to recuse himself from the Mueller investigation. In replacing Sessions, Trump’s obvious priority was to pick someone who would be in his corner—and if you can’t trust the lawyer who wrote the memo arguing it would be a mistake to charge you with obstruction of justice, well, who can you trust?

On Tuesday, however, Barr will be taking great pains to assure Democrats and moderate Republicans that his loyalty is not to the president, but to an independent Justice Department and to the rule of law. Further, he plans to talk about his personal relationship with Mueller: “I have known Bob Mueller personally and professionally for 30 years,” his prepared remarks read. “We worked closely together throughout my previous tenure at the Department of Justice under President Bush. We’ve been friends since. I have the utmost respect for Bob and his distinguished record of public service. When he was named special counsel, I said that his selection was ‘good news’ and that, knowing him, I had confidence he would handle the matter properly. I still have that confidence today.”

Maybe Trump will simply wave off such things as what Barr needs to say to get past the gatekeepers at the Senate. Or maybe he’ll start to suspect that even the new guy is in on the Witch Hunt.

3. Will the Judiciary Committee play nice?

The Senate Judiciary Committee was last in the spotlight during the knock-down, drag-out fight over the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and the resulting political theater shook the committee to the core. Since then, even-keeled Iowa senator Chuck Grassley has stepped down as the chair of the Judiciary Committee, and Lindsey Graham has taken his place. Some of the committee’s Democrats are still simmering at Graham’s angry lectures during the Kavanaugh hearings, when he accused them of being party to “the most unethical sham since I’ve been in politics.” Sen. Mazie Hirono, one of the commitee’s Democrats, told Politico Monday that “I hope that Lindsey Graham can be the Lindsey Graham that I worked on immigration reform with, and not the Lindsey Graham who yelled during the Kavanaugh hearing.” Graham, for his part, has cautioned that Democrats will “pick these fights at their own peril.”

It’s possible that, extraordinary Kavanaugh fight in the rearview, things are going to get back to normal at the Judiciary. Tuesday’s hearing will be the first test of whether that’s possible.

Andrew Egger

Andrew Egger was a senior writer at The Bulwark.